There is a fascinating thing that can tend to happen in some Catholic churches. I’m sure it’s not totally unique to Catholics, but since that’s my own experience, it’s what I can personally attest to.
This phenomenon occurs primarily in traditional-style churches. Those are the single-aisle, long and narrow churches with pews extending from the center to the side perimeter of the building. The traditional construction is the general favorite of those who long for more classical and traditional liturgical celebration. And for good reason… the construction is meant to highlight the front-and-center nature of the tabernacle, while the typical high-elevation symbolizes a reach to the heavens. Obviously, in these buildings you are more apt to witness the tall, stained-glass windows and ornate designs that call to mind the sacredness of our faith, the beauty of statues and other sacrementals, and the ethereal feeling of being at peace with our Lord.
That’s the good part. But there’s also another thing that starts to happen, which this particular pew layout encourages: pew hugging.
Pew hugging is defined as the person, or couple, who enters an empty pew and sits on the outside edge of the pew. Rather than move to the center of the pew, as if to say “I welcome others to join me,” the pew hugger essentially blocks off the rest of the pew from an easy entry. Given the choice between entering an empty pew and either asking someone to move down or figuring out some way of moving past them without tripping or stepping on their feet, you will choose the empty pew every time. Given the choice between entering a pew where the only two people in the pew are in the center versus the edge, you will enter the pew where the people are in the center.
I happen to attend a church that is not a traditional style. I am not saying I prefer that, but I’ve attended the same church for nearly 20 years now, and the parish suits me just fine. It has its issues, as most parishes do, but all in all we do OK. What I will say, though, is that whatever benefits people may use for the traditional style (and I agree with those benefits, and would at this point prefer that our church was a little more traditional), I have never felt that the parishioners give an air of unwelcomeness at Mass. Perhaps it’s just the people, or perhaps it’s that the layout isn’t conducive to pew hugging. But I’ve only witnessed extreme pew hugging at traditional parishes. But not all. So, it’s not just a layout thing, but a people thing.
Extreme pew hugging occurs when you walk into the church and you see a vast emptiness down the middle of all the pews, and nearly every pew has someone planted on each end of the pew. At this point, you must choose to ask permission from some unlucky soul for entrance into the pew. Depending on the person, you may get a response ranging from welcomeness to outright annoyance that you would ask them to be inconvenienced. The persons usually will slide down to make room, but you also may be met with very little assistance. The people may not even shift, as if to make it as difficult as possible to crawl over and past them. You must choose wisely.
In all seriousness, obviously there are situations with some seniors and others where there is a physical reason why they sit on the end. It is not of them that this little rant is about. It is the message sent by able-bodied individuals who, intentionally or not, send off a cold, unwelcoming message. And don’t think it’s just rude young people who are thinking highly of themselves. There are plenty of older people who feel a certain sense of entitlement to the end of the pew for no physical reason.
I guess one reason I’ve noticed this is because I have seven kids. Clearly, we take up a chunk of pew. We Catholics are supposed to embrace larger families. Yet, I have often felt simply unwelcomed in many parishes. People see us looking for a spot and nobody moves. I don’t want to start off Mass with negativity, but it’s tough not to when nobody cares enough about welcoming you that they are unwilling to give up their precious spot at the end of the pew.
I can accept that perhaps people simply don’t even think about it. But from now on, if you find yourself engaging in pew hugging, maybe think about the message you’re sending and simply move down to the pew. That’s a huge “welcome” sign.
My family and I thank you.