I am always impressed by a parish with a beautiful introit. The introit is the first steps of the mass; it is the centering and focusing movement of the entire liturgy. It can easily be something that is overlooked, or it can be one of the more spiritually nourishing parts of the mass. The introit sets the tone for the remainder of the liturgy – and the simplest liturgical choices can make an incredible difference.
I grew up in a 1,500+ member foursquare church in Eugene, Oregon that always emphasized a welcome. At some point the pastor or one of the associates would stand up, greet everyone, and then invite the musicians to begin worship. It was always lovely: a warm smile to greet you, perhaps an encouraging word of scripture, and someone to suggest we lift our hearts to God as opposed to keeping them clutched by ourselves. Others in the pews would turn to their side and welcome each other. I do not begrudge this experience one bit! It was wonderful and it fit both the aesthetic and the theology of the church which I enjoyed.
Several years later as a Freshman in College I had my first liturgical experience. First, a bell, then the Gregorian chant school began in the very back of the church. Then a gold cross emerged, held by a young boy in a cassock and surplice. Following him were other young boys, one carrying incense, another a thrurible. The small clouds of incense would flow from the thurible, and fill our senses with a woody flavor. Their hands clasped and the thumbs in a perfect cross crossed. Each with a sincere, focused look on his face.
Then came a master of ceremonies, functioning as a point man; two deacons followed, one carrying the gospels, the other, clasped in prayer. They seemed utterly unconcerned about anything except serving a beautiful liturgy, proclaiming the gospel well, ensuring that everything was ready for the mass. Finally, came the priest. He walked with humility and focus, not distracted by anyone or anything in the pews. His own walk on the introit is not so much a walk into a sanctuary as a walk up to calvary, under the weight of the cross. His vestments, gloriously gold and white, his hands clasped, nothing could distract him from the purpose and mission of his life.
The effect was a lovely solemnity. I was impressed by the hearts and focus of each person in the pews. I could not imagine a more devoted and reverent group. Some were following the proper in their missals, others were finishing their rosary. All stood in rapt attention and I felt at home with those around me in their devotion to God.
I do not begrudge those who show up late for mass, or welcome each other as we did in my foursquare church. I truly enjoy the warmth of those who have gone beyond their shyness and sent a sincere word of welcome to those around them. The casual atmosphere took pressure off and made the experience enjoyable. However, I am simply a bit baffled by those Catholic parishes whose introit follows this formula and then expects parishioners to be focused and reverent, given the content of a Catholic mass. People tend to do what they are invited to do. For example: if you are hosting a cockatil party, it would be silly to expect each person to make deep, spiritual conversation and wear something other than eveningwear.
Simply, make up your mind of what kind of worship you want. A sacrament brings us closer first to Christ and then to each other. And our liturgy must draw us as close to Christ as possible so that we can love each other better. There is a reason we pray first and then have Coffee and Doughnuts after mass.