My family got lucky a few weeks ago when we had a longtime scheduled trip to Rome, Italy. We were there the week of the Roman Catholic celebration of Ash Wednesday, and Pope Benedict announced that it would be his last Ash Wednesday service as the pope. We stood in a long line and were fortunate enough to get into The Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican to see the service.
We were there among a lot of Roman Catholic nuns and priests, as well as a lot of other practicing Roman Catholics. I grew up Roman Catholic and so I am familiar with the drill of when to stand, sit and kneel. I know this can look daunting to an outsider, but whatever house of worship that I am in, I think it is good etiquette to do what the congregation is doing. This was not the case with everyone who attended mass with us on Ash Wednesday.
As soon as the pope processed down the aisle, a lot of people left the church. They were obviously just there to take their photos of the historic moment. This bothered me in a lot of ways, but the bigger issue I had was with the people who remained who did not even try to participate in the service. For example, my family has attended several Bar Mitzvah services in Jewish temples, and even though my family is Episcopalian my sons and husband always wear a kippah on their heads when offered. We also stand respectfully when asked, and sit when everyone else does. We do not understand Hebrew so we cannot participate with those responses, but fully participate in the parts that we can. Our participation does not mean that we are being disloyal to our own religion. It means that we are being respectful of other people’s religion, and are acting politely when we are in their house of worship.
When in Rome do what the Romans do. If it is in a church, restaurant, or someone’s home, do whatever everyone else is doing. It is the right and respectful thing to do.