Until the Fat Lady Sings: Leaving Mass Early

I have received a lot of positive feedback on my column a couple of weeks ago about people who habitually arrive late for Mass. One parish priest wrote:
“Thanks for your article on people arriving late for Mass. You have really hit the nail on the head here. However, there is one thing worse - priests who arrive late.
This has become so bad that I have been in churches where I am dressed and ready fifteen minutes before Mass time and people walk in and say to me ‘You’re early!’.
Parishioners can no doubt give examples of priests strolling in two minutes before Mass or even after the start time as ifto say, ‘They can wait, they can’t go on without me’. I know priests may occasionally have an emergency to attend to, but these offenders are serial and have just developed bad, bad habits.”
Some correspondents asked me to also comment about the practice of people leaving before the end of Mass.
Perhaps most Catholics don’t take much notice of people leaving early because they’re accustomed to it, but visitors and new Catholics find it very disconcerting because it doesn’t happen in other Churches (except perhaps with the Orthodox where the liturgy lasts around three hours!).
The practice is probably a hangover from pre-Vatican II days when one’s Mass obligation was met as long as one was present for the offertory, the consecration and the priest’s communion. Hopefully we have grown out of such legalistic behaviour and have a better understanding of why and how we gather for worship as a community of faith.
Let’s be honest. Walking out before Mass has ended is just plain bad manners, as it would be if someone were to get up and leave a dinner party as soon as they had finished eating without any thank-yous or farewells. Also there are jobs to be done when Mass is over - simple things like closing windows and tidying up. Those who leave early shirk their responsibility as members of the parish community.
Besides being socially unacceptable, the practice of not staying for all of the Mass is theological inappropriate.
The fact that the term ‘Mass’ is derived from the dismissal (the Latin ite Missa est) suggests that this part of the Mass is very important. The dismissal is not just a way to end the celebration or to say farewell to those who have gathered, although both of these are included. As the General Instruction puts it, the dismissal of the assembly ‘sends each member back to doing good works, while praising and blessing the Lord’. (GI 2000 #90)
The Concluding Rites of the Mass, though brief, remind us that we are all expected to do our part in carrying on Christ’s mission of proclaiming God’s word and of serving others. The announcements following the Prayer after Communion offer the assembly opportunities for living out the commitment which Eucharist entails during the coming week, for example, assisting at the food pantry for the needy, gathering for evening prayer on Wednesday, offering transport for the elderly, visiting the sick and housebound. Those who leave early walk away from all of this.
If this behaviour is unacceptable in other Churches, in other social situations and from a theological viewpoint, why does it continue and why don’t we challenge it?


Elizabeth Harrington