Anyone who comes to the South understands very quickly that there is a code of gentility—manners—that governs every aspect of life. It’s a little complex sometimes, but all of us who live here understand it. After a time, it becomes such a part of life that we don’t even think about it any more, we just do it. And not only does life go more smoothly, the accepted manners of life reassure each of us of our place and worth and our relationship to each other.
We just do it, except, of course, at Church. We accept—bless our hearts—we regularly engage in-- behavior in church we’d never tolerate in our homes.
The cornerstone of Southern manners is hospitality. Let a stranger show up, and we immediately respond to him with warmth and engagement. So pleased to meet you! So consistent is this that Northerners who come south remark that they are invariably asked three questions in rapid succession: Where are you from? Who are your people? Where (not if, mind you) do you go to church? And they remark that if the answer to the last question reveals a lack of a church home, the very next statement is invariably Would you like to join me at worship on Sunday?
So how come visitors to Catholic churches complain they are never welcomed?
Southerners have an innate dress code. In face, there’s some sort of silent communication among Southern women that even communicates changes in the dress code. I remember vividly showing up at a wedding shower in white cotton slacks and a bright shirt (last year’s uniform) only to find that this year, the order of the day was pastel linen pedal pushers. And every woman there was wearing them. Men go to work in suits and ties and most of their children wear uniforms to school. We know better than to show up at a reception for the queen wearing jeans and a tee shirt.
So why is it I see so many people who regularly dress better wearing grubby sports clothes and stained deck shoes when they come to visit the King of the Universe? Who do I see so many teens in tee shirts with secular sayings on them , so many girls in short shorts, so many boys in the same worn flip-flops they wear to the beach?
And while we are on the subject of a reception for the Queen, every good Southerner would know to show respect for the sovereign –even of another country--with a deferential curtsey or bow.
So why is it that, when entering the presence of the Sovereign Lord of Life in the tabernacle, or seeing Him pass in the Blessed Sacrament on the way to repose, we don’t even pause in our conversation, let alone bow or genuflect with the reverence He deserves?
We Southerners know how to be punctual, at least when we think it’s important. We make tee-times and kick offs and flight schedules with time to spare. We even have rituals that prepare us for getting there on time and help us get in the proper frame of mind (think checklist for packing and tailgate party). And it’s an affront of major proportions to come so late to a dinner party that serving has already begun. Yet Catholic tardiness is such a reality that even Protestants make jokes about it.
So why is it that people who are regularly ten minutes late can’t make the effort to be five minutes early? An occasional late day is one thing, but chronic tardiness means that mass just isn’t important enough to require a rearrangement of one’s day.
And speaking of dinner parties, what Southerner would pick up and leave from the table the minute he is done eating, without even saying thank you and goodbye to his hosts?
So why do so many people leave right after communion or before the recessional hymn is completed? It might be well to remember that Judas left the first mass early, and he didn’t fare too well, all things considered.
No Southern parent would permit his child to ignore an adult’s question. When conversation requires interaction, we insist on that our children pay attention and be respectful and be heard, and we model it ourselves. How many times have you heard a Southern momma tell her child, “What do you say dear? Speak up. Aunt Lindy asked you a question.” And she’ll usually remind the child to stand up straight and look dear old Aunt Lindy in the eye because it’s respectful and because we Southerners understand how very much the conduct of our bodies shapes our minds and hearts.
So why is it that our responses are so anemic in mass, and so many stroll up to communion as though it were a fast-food drive-through and people don’t even pray the required Amen! (Yes, Lord I believe!) when receiving our Lord at communion?
I’ve also found there’s a good sense of “right place, right time, right activity” among Southerner. Talking during a concert or movie is considered the height of ill-breeding. It disturbs others and it is not respectful of what is going on. The music, the movie deserve our full attention.
So why do I hear so much loud, secular conversation in Church, before, during and after mass? Before is time for preparation—conversation interrupts those who are trying to orient their hearts to God. Conversation during is simply disrespectful. Conversation after interrupts those who have taken time to give thanks—I have even had people come up to me and try to start conversation despite the fact that I am on my knees with my eyes closed (trying desperately to concentrate over the din around me).
And Southerners have a good sense of priority, especially when family is involved. I daresay there’s not a one of us who did not give up a much-desired activity as a child because some family event or another intervened, and family always came first.
So why is it I hear so many parents say that they can’t get to mass (or PRE or confirmation classes) every week because their kids have baseball or football/soccer/baseball/music /practice/games/recitals/tournaments that conflict? When did we decide it was just fine for secular activities to take precedence over the time we set aside to be with our Father and our families on Sunday? When did we decide it was perfectly fine to miss dinner with Jesus, the one He looks forward to. After all, He understands.
It cannot be that we are being intentionally rude. It must be that, like Northerners who move down here and struggle to figure out the way of things, we just don’t know what’s proper. We don’t know the reasons for the rules and we haven’t got our priorities straight.
Maybe it’s time we learned.