20 February 2014

Preferential or Reserved Seating at Mass?

[[Dear Sister, does your parish or your diocese use reserved seating for religious? How about for visiting priests or other consecrated persons? If there was the renewal of a commitment to serve as an EEM, would your parish ask all those renewing their commitment to sit apart from the rest of the assembly? Do you have an opinion about this kind of practice?]]

What a surprising series of questions. I am curious about what prompts them for you! In any case, neither my parish nor others I know of in my diocese generally use reserved seating for religious, priests (i.e., for those who are not concelebrating), or other consecrated persons except of course in  special Masses (Ordinations, installations of Bishops) where all ordained are expected to be present, or in funeral, profession, or jubilee Masses for religious; in these cases members of the persons' congregations or the Presbyterate sit together and their seating is reserved. It is true that in our parish the first 2-3 pews are reserved for families and friends when a child is being baptized, for instance. For First Communions each child sits on the aisle of one pew and the rest of the pew is filled with immediate family and friends. (Each pew is marked with a banner with the child's name.) The rest of the assembly sits behind the section with the children and their families. However, in daily, Sunday, or otherwise normal Masses everyone including visiting priests (who are not concelebrating), deacons, and religious or other consecrated persons sit dispersed throughout the assembly as equally significant members of the Church by virtue of their baptism.

Renewal of commit-ments to serve as EEMs (or other ministries for that matter) are handled in my parish by calling all EEMs to come forward and stand together facing the altar. Every person who serves in this way, lay, consecrated, or religious, does this and renews their commitment in front of the entire assembly while the assembly prays for them as well. They then return to their original seats with friends, family, Sisters or Brothers, etc. Generally this means they are scattered throughout the assembly. I am unaware of any parishes in my area that reserve seating for religious or other consecrated persons as a matter of course though there tends to be an informal similarity with seating as folks take the same seats week after week and folks accede to this. This is not the same thing of course.

Past Practices:

In the late sixties (when I came into the Church) it was true that religious tended to sit together in groups and pews were reserved for them --- not least because they were seen to be separated from "the world" and did not mix with "seculars". It is also the case that in Masses using the extraordinary form religious are given preferential seating even today. Personally I despise the practice and believe it is unChristian. It treats those in the consecrated state as though they are more favored by God than the rest of the assembly and it makes the goal of true unity -- even within a single assembly -- impossible to achieve. Vatican II was very clear: the laity are NOT second or third class citizens in the Kingdom or in the Church and we should not be routinely giving preferential seating to those who are in the consecrated state of life because doing so is a betrayal of the truth of the Kingdom.  ALL are called to an exhaustive holiness and all are called to be disciples of Christ in a whole-hearted way. ALL have an equal place at the table of the Lord. In our parish ministers, who are there to serve and who are required at only one point in the service (EEMs, Lectors, etc) come forth from the assembly as a whole and return to it when their service is finished. (Some participate in the entrance procession and those serving throughout remain near at hand throughout.)

 Scriptural Lessons:

You may recall that in today's first reading James speaks compellingly of God showing no preference or partiality for persons and noted that if we do this we are guilty of sin. This position is emphasized in Romans as well. In these texts the immediate reference is to giving the wealthy priority over the poor, but remember that wealth was seen as a sign of God's favor in the society in general so it can be extended to imply we cannot treat persons as though one vocation is more favored over another. In the Church in Corinth this destructive, disedifying, and entirely worldly approach to persons and status led to the wealthy receiving Eucharist (or eating) before the poor. Paul denounced the entire practice as contrary to the will of God and the example of Jesus.

Meanwhile, throughout the Gospels we are told  that the Kingdom Jesus proclaims turns on its head our tendency to measure reality in terms of status and social distinctions. In a world where it was entirely inconceivable that the last should be first, or the poor should be privileged in any way, the Kingdom represents the inconceivable. It does not substitute a new social hierarchy for an old one but instead does away with social organizing on the basis of status. When Scriptural texts use paradoxical statements like the first will be last or blessed are the poor, we are speaking of something inconceivable, not setting up another hierarchy. In its place is a new equality based on love and unity which is rooted in the chosenness of Baptism.  Eucharist is the place where we celebrate this in a paradigmatic way; it simply does not allow for preferential seating of the kind you are asking about.