Etiquette and Participation

At a Traditional Mass

Man needs external signs to lead him to invisible realities, and a congregation needs written prayers and ceremonies to worship in a unified and orderly manner. What follows are some guidelines which you may find helpful in following along at a Traditional Mass--and if you are a Catholic, there are aids here for participating on a deeper level.

If you are visiting a Traditional Mass for the first time and are not sure what to do, don't panic. It is perfectly fine to just sit back and take it in. You don't have to do all the standing, kneeling, etc. If you want to participate, you are welcome to do so; the Church simply asks that you be respectful and observe the rules about who can receive Holy Communion (the little, white wafer called a "host")--see below under the heading "Holy Communion".

Dress Code

There is no official dress code for the Traditional Mass, but it is right that we should honor God by wearing our best, and that we show charity to our neighbor by dressing modestly (avoiding form-fitting or revealing clothing). Women customarily wear a mantilla, veil, or hat, following the admonition of St. Paul the Apostle,[1] although it is no longer required by canon law.


The atmosphere at a Traditional Mass is one of quiet contemplation and reflection. It is designed to help us quiet our souls, to be aware of God and of our need for him, and to prepare us for union with him.

For this reason, one should enter and exit the church quietly. All chatting, even after the Mass is over, should take place outside the church. Mobile phones, alarms, etc. should be turned off or at least silenced before entering the church.

It is quite normal for infants and young children to be present at Mass. Most churches have a narthex or vestibule (a little room or hallway at the front entrance), and some even have a cry room, where crying or noisy children can be taken if needed; however, it is understood that parents need to worship, and that children cannot be under perfect control at all times, so don't let having youngsters deter you from the Traditional Mass.


The most obvious, and perhaps the simplest level of outward participation at a Mass is the postures (sitting, standing, kneeling). There are no official "rubrics" for the congregation, but there are long-standing customs. These customs vary somewhat from place to place; as a visitor, you can simply follow what everyone else is doing. Some widely-used postures are noted in the appropriate places on the <Ordinary of the Mass> page.

Head bows

It is a pious custom to bow the head at the Names of Jesus and Mary (but not the title of Christ) and at the name of a saint on his feast day. For our Lord, the head is bowed fully, and the shoulders tilted forward slightly; for His Mother only the head is bowed, not quite fully; for another saint, on his feast day, the head is bowed only slightly. Clerics and altar servers have other customary bows, such as the profound bow (from the waist) made by the deacon and subdeacon during the Confiteor.

Prayer Responses

Many churches with Traditional Masses provide booklets called "missalettes" which contain the Ordinary of the Mass (the prayers which do not change from day to day) without the Propers (those prayers proper to specific holy days and feasts). Sometimes the Propers are inserted on a separate sheet, per holy day or feast. If you want to follow all the prayers and readings recited by the priest, you will need a 1962 daily missal (Mass book), preferably a hand missal (smaller in size than the altar missal used by a priest).

The priest says most of the prayers alone, and some of them quietly. To some of his prayers there are responses. At a Low Mass, responses are said; at a Sung Mass and at a Solemn Mass, they are sung.

At many Traditional Masses, the responses are all made by the servers or choir. In this case the congregation may pray along silently, even mouth the words in Latin or in their own language, using a missal or missalette, though this is not required.

At some Traditional Masses, it is customary for the faithful to recite some of the Latin responses aloud, along with the altar servers or choir. Such an arrangement is informally called a "dialog Mass." Generally speaking, you will know if it is a dialog Mass because the congregation will make responses. Which parts are said by the congregation is a matter of local custom, so it is best to follow what everyone else does.

Interior Acts and Dispositions

The most important thing we can do at a Mass is to "offer the sacrifice by the hands of the priest" and "in union with him," in adoration, thanksgiving, expiation, and supplication.[2]

We do this by a simple act of will, and by having this intention throughout the Mass, especially when the server says (or choir sings) "Amen" after the priest says (or sings): Per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso, est tibi Deo Patri omnipotenti, in unitate Spiritus Sancti, omnis honor et gloria, per omnia saecula saeculorum ("Through Him, and with Him, and in Him, is to You, God the Father Almighty, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory, forever and ever").[3]

The next most important thing we can do is to offer ourselves in union with the sacrifice of Christ:

In order that the oblation by which the faithful offer the divine Victim in this sacrifice to the heavenly Father may have its full effect, it is necessary that the people add something else, namely, the offering of themselves as a victim.[4]

How do we do this? St. Alphonsus Liguori gives some helpful instruction and prayers in a short piece titled <Hearing Mass>.

Holy Communion

The Catholic Church takes her sacred rites very seriously, especially Holy Communion, containing the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. Out of respect for God and for our holy religion, this sacrament (the wafer) should only be received by those who:

  • Are Catholic (in full union with the Holy See)
  • Assent to the Church's teachings (including transubstantiation)
  • Have been validly baptized (if you are not sure, ask a priest)
  • Have received (or are receiving) their First Communion
  • Have confessed and received absolution for any mortal sins committed since their last absolution
  • Are going to Mass regularly on Sundays and holy days of obligation
  • Are following the marriage laws of the Church (not cohabiting, not married in an unapproved ceremony, not using artificial contraception, etc.)
  • Are not under any ecclesiastical censure (interdict, suspension, excommunication)
  • Have kept the Eucharistic fast (no food or drink for at least one hour before reception of the Sacrament, except for water and medicine). The elderly and infirm and their caregivers are exempt from this fast.

Those who do not meet these qualifications should not approach the Communion rail at the time of the Distribution, but should remain seated. (Some U.S. parishes observe a modern custom whereby those not receiving Holy Communion may still approach the priest at the time of the Distribution; but crossing their arms over their breast, they receive a blessing instead. Unless you are sure that the priest follows this local custom, it is best to remain seated.)

Communion is distributed on the tongue, to those kneeling at the altar rail--the railing between the sanctuary (altar area) and nave (congregation area). The priest will say, Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen. (May the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve your soul unto everlasting life. Amen.) The communicant (person receiving Communion) makes no response, but quietly returns to his seat and kneels.

It is a pious practice to make a thanksgiving after Communion; that is, to spend a few minutes in quiet prayer, thanking God for the precious gift you have just received. There are prayers written for this purpose, but you can use your own words. A thanksgiving can be made after any form of Mass, but it is often easier to do at a Traditional Mass because of the quieter atmosphere.

1. 1 Cor. 11

2. Mediator Dei, nos. 92, 98; cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1358

3. Mediator Dei, nos. 24, 104

4. Ibid, no. 98

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Todd Aylard