It is not exaggerating to say that all priests in any diocese of this country have had to deal with a group of people who are habitually late arriving to Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation. Has arriving late to Mass become an uncorrectable habit?

Arriving late to Mass has become a heavy disturbance. Often, the church is only a little over half-full at the beginning of Mass. The pews eventually fill by communion time. Even some ministers serving Mass are guilty of this vice, though they are often reminded to be at church at least 15 minutes prior to Mass. Worse than that, a majority of these late arrivals go to receive holy Communion! It seems that being late to Mass does not bother them at all.

Once in a while, pastors mention during the announcements or even homilies that habitually arriving late for Mass is a sin. They say that, whether the tardiness is the result of indifference, laziness, disrespect or ignorance, it is wrong. The situation improves a little for a few weeks, but, then it goes back to the same problem again.

American Punctuality vs. Human-oriented Style

Compared to workers around the world, Americans are known for their punctuality. They come to work on time. Arriving late or leaving early from the workplace could mean being penalized or even losing their job. Schools begin classes on time. Shopping centers open and close their doors on time. Meetings begin on time. Even in the entertainment industries, movies and plays also start on time. The term ''on time'' becomes the unspoken rule of all people, and punctuality is the standard for all activities.

Following the same system, parish churches begin Mass on time. Conventionally, the American faithful want the punctuality of Mass. They make plans for after Mass!

People of other nationalities and some Americans have another way to look at the order of society. Spirituality is observed more strictly than material need. The needs of the extended family and friends are heavily sensitive. Working to earn money for one's family is more important than playing a game with friends; a day off is less respected than a working day.

This order is understood by members of the same group. That is why people of that subculture do not mind if they come to an event on time, and recognize that the event will start late. From their own experience, they know they do not need to come on time to the events considered less important or where punctuality is not necessarily expected. This is a mutual understanding between hosts and guests.

Importance of Each Part of Mass

Following the same logic, the parishioners come to Mass. The order and explanation of Mass give them a hint of what is more and what is less important. Jesus is the center of Mass. The real presence of Jesus is most important. This importance is recognized by the ministry of the priest, an ordained minister, or by the extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, or by all other ministers, including ministers of hospitality, lectors and choir members.

In most dioceses, there is a clear guideline of how to become an extraordinary minister of holy Communion. Each parish has its own requirements for this important ministry such as, ''If married, are you married in the Catholic Church? Are you a practicing Catholic? Are you a registered parishioner? Are you willing to attend the appropriate workshops for an extraordinary minister of holy Communion?'' The other ministries do not require such details.

People have been educated about the four parts of Mass: ''Gathering, Liturgy of the Word, Liturgy of the Eucharist and, finally, the Dismissal.'' It is also correct to say that there are two main parts of Mass, Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist. Implicitly, the greetings are less important than the Liturgy of the Word; the Liturgy of the Word is less important than the Liturgy of the Eucharist when Jesus really exists. The final part of the Mass is not substantially needed. Therefore, if they come late to Mass or leave before the final blessing, it is not only tolerable but acceptable!

Charity vs. Discipline

This issue leads to another problem. The church late arrivals argue that their socioeconomic conditions are not as comfortable as those of other people. Paying the monthly bills is their permanent challenge. They have to work, even on the weekend. Their income is still the same; however, the cost of living has escalated. Moreover, their house and car are broken often, and need to be maintained. They do not have leisure time. Weekends are the only times they can relax a bit. Unlike some groups whose life is well established, they have to worry about job, health, education, children, relations between parents and children.

Sometimes, they argue, the Church does not know their situation very well. For them, going to church is a sacrifice and a big effort!

Structure vs. Socials

The social system of this country focuses strongly on structure. All institutions have their own norms and frameworks that guide the actions of their members. Students follow the student handbook. Restaurant employees follow the employees' handbook with rights and responsibilities. Even customers must keep the rules. Some restaurants post a sign: ''No shirt, no shoes, no service.''

The Church is no different. Each local church has its own guidelines. Looking at the parish bulletin, people see Mass times, list of the priests, parish staff and ministers. And the contributions of parishioners at each Mass is reported. Then, to be recognized as a member of the parish, a person has to register. The registration means that the faithful fully engages one's activities or one's heart in the parish. The Church needs that commitment.

Some groups look at the parish differently. All of the above activities do not fit them well. They consider the church not only as a place of worship but as a social center. After Mass, they might stay outside the church talking to their friends for a long time. They talk about significant events, invite friends to their homes, or recommend a new grocery in town. Obviously, they come to church because of God, but also for networking.

Correctable or Uncorrectable?

While the late arrivals are considered as undisciplined, they themselves think the Church does not understand their situation. They used to mention the saying ''people in the same boat know each other.'' How can the priest and the Church come into their boat?

Objective Way: For any teachings to be effective, the church and her ministers must be the model of punctuality. If a Mass is scheduled for 8:00 a.m., the celebrant and the ministers must begin promptly at 8:00 a.m. The pastor should make clear to all ministers that they must be at church at a certain time before Mass. There are some regulations about which all ministers agree. A big clock in the church is helpful for all. No one can say his watch is better than another's.

During Mass, at proper times, the homilist can remind people to arrive at church a few minutes early in order to relax, meditate and prepare spiritually for Mass. Some priests use homilies and stories to explain to people that being on time for Mass is a big gift everyone can offer to God.

Announcement time is also a good occasion to show appreciation to those who come to church punctually. At this time, many people who arrive late for Mass are also the ones who leave early! However, recognition of the faithful who come to church early would be a comfort against the disturbance they endured.

Subjective Way: Some parishes use individual testimonies to teach. A story of someone who used to arrive late for Mass, but now becomes an extraordinary minister is effective. Stories of those who live ''in the same boat'' are the live sharing of faith that leads to a real conversion. Going to church is a joy, and arriving early for Mass is an extended joy.

Friendship plays an important role in our religious life. Many people choose the parish not only because of the location or the time or the pastor but also because of their friends. Children play a big role in reminding their families and friends to come to church on time. CCD students are an effective factor of this plan.

A priest shares his stories: ''Welcoming people plays a very important role in inviting them back. Here, we have to go backward. We welcome people after, not before Mass. Why? Obviously, we cannot welcome late arrivals, however, after Mass, we still can make them feel comfortable by acknowledging their presence. The ministers, together with the celebrant, come outside, and interact with the people. When the ministers remember the names of some faithful, a friendship is established.''

No doubt, arriving late for Mass is a visible sign of the reality inside. The Church's ministers must assist the faithful to recognize that going to Mass is a joy and blessing. Fulfilling the obligation taught by the Church and by the Third Commandment is as important as creating the loving relationship with God and with one another when together we call him ''father.'' TP

Father Dao, O.P., is pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Montclare, Calif.