I was sitting in Municipal Court a couple of days ago awaiting my turn to see the judge. The bailiff was ensuring that proper decorum was followed to the point of turning young women away clad in shorts and having the men remove their caps. Everything was quiet.
It never dawned on me until I was sitting on the "pew", so to speak (since the word "bench" is reserved for the judge's seat), how very much like a Catholic church the courtroom is. There is that separation between the people and the actual court in a manner similar to the altar railing (still found in some of the older churches) that separates the pews from the sanctuary. Even in those churches that do not have an altar railing, there is still a somewhat informal divide, so to speak, that separates the faithful from the sanctuary, whether it's steps or a slight elevation.
Sadly, it seems to me that we tend to behave more respectfully while in court than we do while we are at Church. In the court, we are in the presence of the judge; however, in Church, we are present before the true Just Judge. In the secular court, we need to maintain silence. Mobile phones should be inaudible, Proper attire must be worn. The same should hold true in Church. The operative word is "should". Unfortutnatelly, that is not always the case. Archbishop Malcolm Ranjith, formerly the Secretary to the Congreagation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and now Archbishop of Colombo (Sri Lanka), lamented during his keynote address at the 2008 Gateway Liturgical Conference that "Wall Street" has moved into the sanctuary. Folks engage in conversations with each other, sometimes aloud. The different mobile phone ring tones seem to chime in chorus. Somehow, prayer seems to be an after-thought.
My dad experienced this tonight at his parish. The song leader and her assistant were laughing and chatting away to the point that it made prayer a difficult feat to accomplish for the folks in the pews. He had to walk out of the Church because he could not pray. He made it back right before Mass began. Unfortunately, what my dad experienced is not something that is confined to this particular parish. It's a problem that permeates all over the place.
It's also a problem that, oddly enough, Jesus personally encountered in Jerusalem. It always amazes me when a well-meaning person poses the infamous question: What would Jesus do? Well, let's look at it for a moment and examine what Jesus actually did. He goes to the Temple, His house, to pray. What does he find? He notices a lot of loud conversation, folks buying and selling and, what amounts to a marketplace. But, some might say, whoa, benedictgal, weren't these folks outside of the Temple? Actually, they were not. The Temple had three divisions: the Holy of Holies (reserved only for the priest), the court for the Hebrews and the Court of the Gentiles. The moneychangers and the vendors set up shop at the Court of the Gentiles, an area that was reserved for the non-Jewish followers of the God of Israel so that they could worship the Lord. It was already sacred space. As God, Jesus was perturbed and disturbed that this kind of activity should be going on in His house. What did Jesus do? The Gospel accounts tell us that he fashioned a whip of cords and drove out the moneychangers and the animals. "My Father's house is a house of prayer," Jesus said.
These words reverberate today. Of course, I don't think that anyone wants to break out the cords and whips (although, there might be a strong temptation to do so, sometimes). But, we need to remember just Who's house we are inside when we go to Church. If we must observe stringent procedures when inside the courtroom, should we not have just as much respect, if not, more, when we are inside Church? Jesus issues the invitation. He yearns for us to spend time with Him. He yearns to speak to us. It's kind of hard listening to Jesus when we're chatting with the person next to us in the pews. It's also difficult to prayerfully prepare for the sacred mysteries about to unfold before us in the Mass if we are visiting with our friends while inside the Church. Active participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass also includes interior preparation as well.
Next time you find yourself having to sit in a courtroom, I invite you to make the comparisons between this space and the Church's sacred area. Compare what you experience in the courtroom to what you see and hear going on prior to Mass on a given Sunday. Granted, infractions of court decorum are punishable by either jail time or a huge fine (depending on your particular home state).. At least there is a huge measure of respect in the presence of the judge. But, in Church, we are in the presence of, as I wrote earlier, the True, Just Judge. Our behavior should that reflect that all the more because we do this not out of fear of fines or jail time, but, out of love.