This past Christmas Eve, I was attending a Vigil Mass at a church where my good friend is a deacon. For the past three years I have joined him, his wife, and his four daughters for dinner after the Mass, so I am very aware that this 4 p.m. Mass, often called the “children’s Mass,” fills up very quickly. I arrived this year at 3:25, and although the church holds over a thousand people, it was already three-quarters full. I easily could have found a seat, but I knew that there would be standing room only, so I chose to stand in the back and let others sit.
As the people streamed into the church, I recalled a time when I was perhaps ten or eleven years old. Two of my brothers and I were attending Mass with our mother at our small church. My father would later convert to the Faith, but at that time he was home keeping an eye on my youngest brother, who was still in diapers.
I cannot say for certain, by I think it was a midnight Mass, for I clearly remember that it was dark outside. The church was packed, and even though a priest asked everyone to squeeze together to make more room, it soon became apparent that the pews could hold no more. The aisles against the church walls were soon lined with people.
Just before Mass began, my mother noticed that a woman with a small child was standing at the end of our pew. She leaned over and whispered to me, “Get up and offer the woman your seat.” My mother raised her boys to be gentlemen, and offering a seat to an elderly woman or a mother with a child was simply what a man did. I stood up, shuffled out of the pew, and offered my seat. The woman smiled warmly, thanked me, and sat down.
Perhaps, for the very first time, I felt like a grownup. To stand against the wall with other men was like a small initiation into adulthood. I was short for my age, but that night I felt I had instantly grown several inches. It was a wonderful feeling.
From that moment on, my mother never had to prompt me. I always looked for opportunities to offer my seat, and when I truly reached adulthood, I continued the practice. It still makes me feel good.
Which brings me to this past Christmas Eve Mass. The ushers valiantly tried to find a place for everyone to sit, but by 3:40, it was clear that they would lose the battle.
At 3:45, a woman with three small boys came to the rear of the church and stood next to me. The boys asked why they couldn’t sit down, and she explained to them that there wasn’t any room. Despite their ages, they did not complain. The floor was carpeted, so they sat down with their backs against the wall.
I thought to myself, It’s not as if this woman is late for Mass. She is fifteen minutes early, after all. Is there no man in this church who will give up his seat for this mother? What a great lesson can be taught here this evening if a man will step forward, especially if he has sons with him.
But no one did. And so she stood.
The Mass began promptly at 4:00. Now anyone entering the church was late. And then it began to happen. Suddenly someone seated in a pew would wave at someone entering the church and motion to them to join them. And, sure enough, many people, young and old, some fifteen or twenty minutes late, would stroll down the aisle, their family members or friends would slide over, and they would sit down. You see, their seats were “saved,” while those who arrived early and had to stand were just unlucky, I guess.
As I watched these pathetic scenes take place, the irony was striking. Here it was, Christmas Eve. We were celebrating the birth of baby Jesus, who was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn, and men in the church were oblivious to needs of women with small children and sent a clear message that there is no room in this church, either.
Sadly, I am reminded of these words of C.S. Lewis: “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” To this I would humbly add, “We ask nothing from men, and that is exactly what we get.”