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A time and a place for prayer
A lady rang me recently seeking advice on what to do about people in her parish who talked in church before and after Mass. “I come to church to spend time with God. How do I get them to understand that the church is for quiet prayer, not for socialising?” she asked.
When considering this issue, it is important to keep in mind that the church building is not a hall or auditorium, but a complex of spaces for different but interrelated functions. The main body of the church, the worship space, is where key celebrations of the community take place – Mass, weddings, funerals, etc. Other spaces are used for reconciliation, baptism, private devotions, and so on.
Conflict arises when one area has to serve several functions, as happens when there are not separate spaces for gathering and private prayer within a church building.
Where that is the case, what takes priority – the gathering of the community or people wanting a quiet place to pray?
Actively gathering as the people of God is important for our worship to be authentic and meaningful. In a liturgical celebration we come together as people of different ages, backgrounds and walks of life to worship as the Body of Christ. God is present in the assembled community. We prepare for the liturgy by acknowledging where we are and those with whom we will participate in worship.
As well as the need for members of the assembly to greet one another as they arrive, there are always last–minute arrangements that liturgical ministers need to make before Mass begins, no matter how well prepared they are. It is unreasonable to expect all this to be carried out in silence.
On the other hand, all members of the assembly need to respect the fact that the church is not simply a meeting hall but a sacred space for celebrating the rites of the church.
Conflict is avoided when a church has separate spaces for the different aspects of faith practice. A gathering space encourages hospitality and interaction and helps build a sense of community – all prerequisites for good celebration.
Because people often seek a still, quiet place for prayer in churches, parishes need to consider creating a separate space within the church building for private prayer and devotion, perhaps a worthy shrine to the Virgin Mary or the parish patron saint. The shrine should be adequately separated from the worship space to ensure an atmosphere of privacy and intimacy.
The Roman Missal encourages parishes to set up a separate eucharistic chapel to provide a place of honour for the reserved sacrament and a space that is suitable for private adoration and quiet meditation. It is possible to provide twenty-four-hour access to such a chapel even when the church is locked.
Where there are not differentiated areas for the various aspects of parish communal life, understanding and tolerance are called for on all sides.
The church is the place where the people of God come together for liturgy – public worship. Private prayer and devotion in the main body of the church need to take place at a time other than when the parish gathers for communal liturgical celebrations.
For the few hours of the week when Mass is scheduled, the need of the whole community to come together has priority.