Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, February 22, 2018

When I go to midday Mass in Manhattan, the clientele seems to change with the season. Outside, street vendors are selling imitation Hermes ties made in China for a few bucks.

Inside, there are homeless people trying to get out of the cold, and they sit in the back of the church beside the usual collection of corporate people, who look as though they walked right off the trading floor. They are joined by an occasional student or nun, along with some elderly people from nearby apartments. I’ve even encountered panhandlers asking for spare change after I come out of confession – how can I say no when I just got absolved?

Last week, though, I saw something that troubled me. A fellow in a down jacket was sitting a few pews away, with his backpack on the seat while he was leafing through his tax return. He was so preoccupied with the details that he didn’t seem concerned the rest of us were watching as he sat there, legs crossed, during the Consecration while the bread and wine were being turned into the Body and Blood of Christ.

I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, but his irreverent behavior and obvious indifference to what was occurring angered me. How could he sit there during the most sacred part of the Mass and rifle through the pages of his tax return?

On occasions like that, the first thing that comes to mind is "What would Jesus do?" The second thing that comes to mind is "Jesus would not do what I want to do, which is beat the daylights out of this fellow." Sometimes, I confess, I don’t really want to do what Jesus would do. Forgive me, Lord.

To add insult to injury, as my mother often said, the fellow then neatly folded the tax return, put it in a manila envelope and placed it inside his backpack. Unfortunately, I was spending more time watching this spectacle than I was paying attention to the Mass.

He immediately proceeded to slouch down in the pew and pull his jacket up around his head and go to sleep. I guess church is as good as the public library if you need to sleep.

In the Christian spirit of live and let live, I probably should have forgotten the fellow and moved on with my life. Even better, I should have prayed for him, as I’m sure my mother would have counseled me, but I couldn’t because I was too darn angry over his insolence. So, instead of returning to my pew after Communion, I walked to the other side of the church just to avoid him.

However, by the next day, I guess the Holy Spirit was hard at work, trying to get me to think more about my flaws than about this dimwit because it occurred to me that I often behave the same way during Mass, albeit in a more covert fashion.

Very often, when the priest is elevating the host, I’ll be thinking about a project I have to complete before the end of the workday.

Or the priest can be delivering a stirring homily about taking the beam out of your own eye instead of worrying about the speck in your neighbor’s eye, and I’ll be daydreaming about what I plan to do on the weekend – cross-country skiing, fooling around with my iPad, loafing (I’m seldom so lucky), going to used-book stores or doing the chores my wife insists need to be done.

When I thought about it, I realized my time at Mass is generally riddled with distractions – although I don’t think I ever reviewed my tax return. Clearly, I was as guilty as that nitwit and needed a recommitment to reverence at Mass.

My friend once told me that he takes a few moments before Mass to pray to the Holy Spirit for special graces so that he can get the most benefit out of the sacrifice. The Holy Spirit always delivers, he said. I guess it would be a good practice for all of us to adopt instead of spending that time chitchatting.

As it turned out, I resolved to develop a more attentive and reverent attitude; but I confess, I still wanted to kick that guy out of the pew and send him and his tax return back to H&R Block where he belonged.

J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.