The House of Usher

Sometimes we liturgical commentators spend a little too much time on the ideal plane of the choir loft without getting the full congregational view of things.

In those times I attend Sunday Mass in the pews, I find it astonishing how much of the average worship experience is dominated by a role unmentioned in the GIRM: the ubiquitous usher.

The distractions available to ushers are legion. Before Mass, they can stand in the back of church chatting, or in the sanctuary doublechecking the sacristan’s work, or in the nave guiding people to seats they could easily find themselves.

During the collection they can say “thank you” to each person who puts something in the basket. Or they can swoop the basket under people who give through their bank, as a helpful reminder.

All of these things I have winessed, and I have also seen usher’s heroics as well. Ushers tend to be amazing with persons who need help, from pointing out the restroom to sitting folks in the wheelchair section to asking that Communion be brought to a person with mobility problems. There is no place medically better to collapse, except in a hospital, than at Sunday Mass, due to the instant and decisive activity of ushers.

On the other hand, ushers, in my opinion, belong nowhere near the Communion line. People know how to go to Communion, and ushers have several unfortunate effects on the experience. They are distracting, and sometimes casually so, engaging people at a very solemn moment. Communion becomes something everyone in the row does, in orderly lines, rather than those who are properly disposed.

Suppose this is the first Mass I’ve attended for 20 years, just dropping in, and I haven’t been to confession in 30 years. This would be an odd moment to go to Communion. And yet, there is a man with a badge, insisting that it is my turn. I’d better go.

Or suppose I ate a McBreakfast on the way to a 25 minute early morning quiet Mass. The fast is a rule, I’ll be more prudent next time–if I’m brave enough to disobey the usher.

Or just suppose I am praying deeply, and would like a minimum of input right at the moment. An usher once gave me a quite unnecessary verbal direction about venerating the cross on Good Friday, as I was trying to focus on the Lord in worship at this rare and holy moment. Why did we need an usher directing the veneration line?

Without in any way discounting the generous service of these fine people, in general I feel it’s a good idea to think about the way things have been done, even–or perhaps especially–if they have been done that way for many years.

6 Replies to “The House of Usher”

  1. Thankfully, ushers appear a North American peculiarity – I've never seen them in Australia.

  2. Just note that the usher directing rows for Communion is not a creation of the conciliar reforms but predates them, at least in parts of the USA.

  3. Kathleen, you are so right! But why stop there? There are so many people who say they are called to ministry within the congregation and really are there for their own personal aggrandizement. They play "look at me"…prancing about the sanctuary seeming to touch the flower arrangement, or moving the cruets a micron to the left or right, adjusting the missal, and all the while providing a total distraction to anyone who (God forbid) has come early to church to prayerfully prepare for the Sacred Liturgy. In the Orthodox churches people enter as the office of Terce is being said/chanted so they enter into a prayerful environment (remember the pre-vat II days?). Recently I attended my niece's confirmation in a church in the Archdiocese of New York. I was horrified as I entered. The whole congregation was oblivious to the presence of the Blessed Sacrament as there was a chatter going on that would rival a Broadway show. The Prelude simply was cover for the noise and though very well executed, no one appeared to pay attention to it. There was plenty of distraction and not one deacon (whose ancient job was to keep order) was in sight. So, Kathleen, it is not only the ushers, but all (ministers and congregation) need to re-learn how to act in the house of the Lord.

  4. Pope Francis: “We priests tend to clericalize the laity. We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own disease. And the laity — not all, but many — ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar server than the protagonist of a lay path. We cannot fall into that trap — it is a sinful complicity.”

  5. The regulation of the Communion line is completely unnecessary. I've attended Masses all over the world where the faithful manage to make it up to the rail or priest without stampeding or causing disturbances. I think it happens because "it's nice for the ushers to have something to do."

  6. "…unmentioned in the GIRM…" Well, not exactly. GIRM says this:
    105. A liturgical function is also exercised by:
    c) Those who take up the collections in the church.
    d) Those who, in some regions, welcome the faithful at the church doors, seat them appropriately, and marshal them in processions.

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