Catholic mass is really hard. It’s a smartphone-free hour of standing, then kneeling, then standing and singing, then singing and kneeling, and then all of a sudden somebody leans over to shake your hand but not before a collection plate gets tossed around and you feel like you have to fork over at least $10. Just be glad the priests don’t speak in Latin anymore. They did until the 1960s.  

This weekend, Pope Francis will be leading two of these masses, one at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul for V.I.P.s only, and a public mass on the Parkway. Perhaps you’re thinking about going to the big one on Sunday, and you’re not sure what to expect. Perhaps you haven’t been to a Catholic Mass except for that one friend’s wedding whose ceremony seemed to take forever and ever and you just wanted to leave for the reception and get drunk.

Well, fear not the papal Parkway mass. For one thing, over 1 million people are supposed to watch. Plenty of people won’t know what’s happening. But in case you care about the subtleties, Billy Penn has you covered. Here’s our Layman’s Guide to Mass.

Oh, and brush up on your Spanish. Francis will be speaking this language for the most part with perhaps a few freestyles in English, Italian and, gasp, Latin. 

The opening song

Stand up and enjoy it. The first and last songs are always happy. The songs in between are about weird/depressing topics, like being a shepherd or needing to be rescued. Also, be prepared to keep standing for about another ten minutes. You won’t get your first break for a while.

The greeting/forgiveness/maybe a collection

Nobody has any idea what’s happening during this point right after the opening song, and it’s largely because you’re really just supposed to stand at religious attention for anywhere from 10-15 minutes. Basically, the pope/priest will say hello in long-winded fashion and then say some type of prayer that sort of absolves you from sins. But it doesn’t absolve you all the way because you have to receive a separate sacrament (Confession!) for that.

Then, some churches pass around a basket and ask for a donation. It’s well-timed, really — you’re at your weakest point from standing for so long and right after your sins were sort of absolved so you’ll feel pretty good about helping out.

So just stand around, try not to look too bored, and try to remember how much you spend around tax time.

By the way, you’ll need to do a sign of the cross when the pope first says hello. Use either hand, start by touching your forehead, then your belt buckle, then your left shoulder and then your right shoulder. (The British have another way to remember it.)

The readings

Your first break! You’ve certainly earned it, too. The next few minutes tend to fly by as you sit down and listen as a couple of Old Testament bible chapters get read interspersed with what is known as the Responsorial Psalm.    

Sunday’s scheduled first reading has to do with Moses and camping. So that should be pretty cool.

The Responsorial Psalm, which is often sung, might seem kind of weird to you. It usually is, often steering into the aforementioned shepherd/servant territory. Basically, a speaker who is not the priest/pope talks or sings about how awesome God is and then you repeat a line over and over again confirming how awesome God is. The line you’ll be saying Sunday, should the pope follow the same schedule the rest of western Catholicism does, will be “The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.” So let God fill your heart with joy, y’all.


Outside of Communion, this is probably the most important part of the mass. You’ll be standing for it, and the priest will signify he’s starting the Gospel by holding a fancy bible called the lectionary over his head and then by calling out a verse from the New Testament. At this point, people will start moving their hand on their head, mouth and heart. It looks like the sign of the cross but isn’t. Catholics probably don’t even know what this hand symbol means. You’ll be best off skipping this one. It’s not for novices. 

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is going to be a pretty extreme ditty from chapter nine of Mark. A sampling of some of the verses:

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.”

That should wake you up if the early part of mass has lulled you to sleep.


Um, speaking of sleep….

Break out your stopwatch for this one. The homily is basically a speech from the priest, something that usually has to do with the Gospel but often branches out into other topics. The length of a homily is generally the key to a good mass. Keep it under 10 minutes, and Catholics rejoice. Go past 10 minutes, and you’ll start sneaking glances at your phone. But because it’s Pope Francis, this homily should be interesting regardless of the duration.  

The offertory

Here’s the second time people usually get asked for money. Probably just say you only have your debit card now.

Communion preparation

Kneel! This is a really holy part. Basically, the priest/pope will be turning those wafers and the wine into something far less basic.

We’ll start with the wafer: The wafer is actually the body of Christ. NOT A SYMBOL. Catholics believe that when a priest — or in this case Pope Francis — blesses the batch of wafers they become the actual flesh of Jesus. This process is known as the miracle of transubstantiation. If you eat one, you are eating of Jesus’ flesh. Same goes for the wine. My home parish used extra-classy Franzia, but once blessed, Catholics believe it is Jesus’ blood. Ancient Romans actually believed Catholics to be cannibals because they talked of the blood of Christ and held their services in catacombs.

Because of the sheer amount of holiness going down during this transubstantiation, you’ll likely be kneeling for a few minutes.

The Our Father

Hold hands with people next to you and recite this prayer.

Sign of peace

After the Our Father, which is all about being nice to your neighbor, you shake hands with the people standing around you at mass. If you’re with a significant other, go ahead and kiss her or him (no tongue).

I suppose that if you see someone attractive next to you and are really feeling bold you could also kiss that person. If he/she is not Catholic, you could just tell him/her, “Catholics kiss,” then ask for his/her phone number.

It has yet to fail.

More communion preparation

Everything’s been blessed. Now, the pope/priest will basically just distribute the wafers among more people who will then serve them to everyone. You’ll have to kneel during this part, too.  


People will get into a line to be served holy communion or perhaps communion will be brought to the crowd. So, should you choose to try the body and blood of Christ? If you’re not a Catholic, the wafer will burn a hole through the roof of your mouth.

Obviously that won’t really happen. But you’re not supposed to try it if you’re not Catholic. At a mass like they’ll have on the Parkway, though, nobody will notice.

And never try the wine. Catholics share just a few chalices among dozens of people and wipe away the germs using only a little handkerchief — even during cold and flu season. It’s really gross.

The closing

Mass is finally over. You made it through at least an hour of a ritual that is confusing even to people who’ve attended for years. The priest/pope will have some final words, first a prayer and then whatever he damn well pleases. Maybe Francis will say something cool about the Eagles. Who knows?

Normally, you can follow the crowd right out of the church. On the Parkway with 1 million others, that might take you another hour.

At least you’ll be able to use your smartphone by then.

Mark Dent

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...