When it comes to our Sunday Mass obligation, there are few things that capture our attention more than the Eucharist. Sure, there’s liturgical music too look forward to, incense to be whiffed and the customary “post-Summit-and-Source-of-Christian-Life” doughnuts to be had.
But let’s be honest, there’s one thing that demands the attention of our senses slightly less than the Body and Blood of Christ: Church pews.
Why? Well, because when it comes to being in God’s presence, we Catholics like to make everything awesome and meaningful, even our pews. Here’s a breakdown of how we came to pop a celestial squat:
1. Whose House?
Prior to the construction of Church buildings, the Church militant would meet at people’s houses to celebrate “the breaking of the bread” (Acts 2:46). During the time Christ, it was commonplace for houses to have long bed-like cushions in which people would recline to eat their meals.
It is likely then that when the Eucharist was celebrated, the congregants would either stand or recline as was custom of the time. They more than likely stood in order to honor the True Presence and to inaudibly symbolize the Resurrection.
2. Standing Room Only
Once Church buildings began to be erected, Christians used to have to stand throughout the service. The only other acceptable stance was kneeling, and that was typically used for penitential acts. Jason Evert explains,
“The First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325) included a canon proscribing kneeling on Sundays and during Pentecost, suggesting that kneeling was common in the early Church at other times (e.g., on weekdays)… The early Church saw kneeling in public as essentially a penitential act, since the penitents knelt during the parts of the liturgy that they were allowed to attend. Kneeling now has more of a reverential than penitential connotation attached to it.”
So if you were an early Church Christian, you either stood or knelt. Sitting wasn’t an option. In fact, some Orthodox communities are still pewless to this day.
3. That’s MY Seat You’re Sitting In
It wasn’t until the sermon came to be the central act of worship (thanks to the protestant revolution), that pews began to appear. Since the Churches at the time could not afford them, individual parishioners would pick up the tab. In fact, they would claim them as personal property and place “pew boxes” over them so no one else could use them.
On top of that, they’d put their names on them just in case there was any confusion.
4. Can’t Afford a Pew? We Got You
While “Pew Rents” were commonplace until the mid-19th century, even here in the U.S, those who couldn’t afford a sit would be given a spot in the cheap seats. CatholicCulture.org reports:
“Charges that were formerly made in some dioceses for the use of certain seats in church. In the United States the practice had been approved by the Third Council of Baltimore and endorsed by the Holy See as a source of revenue for church maintenance and the support of the clergy. Renting a pew or section entitled a person to use a given place at all or any of the divine services in that church. In some dioceses a person could receive pastoral administrations even though registered in another parish. Those unable to pay pew rent were at liberty to use the numerous unassigned seats in the Church.”
5. It is All About Comfort, Right? Wrong
Today, Church pews abound. Some are posh:
Others are penitential, filled with slivers to help unite your experience more closely to the Christ’s passion and death:
And some are just so plain beautiful you hesitate to place your gluteus maximus upon them: