@Lee_Ann: I’m so sorry you had to experience your first mass under such circumstances!
If there’s one thing I hear from people who aren’t Catholic and go to a Mass, it’s always that they are convinced that they stick out like a sore thumb and everyone knows they aren’t Catholic. You don’t! I promise you! *No one* cares if you stand up half a second later, or don’t know all the words, or seem a little lost. To be honest, a lot of Catholics get kind of lazy and don’t always say all the words, don’t sing, etc. so no one would even notice.
As far as etiquette goes, here’s some basics:
You don’t have to cross yourself if you don’t want to. It’s basically our equivalent of saying “In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen” like most other Christians do. It’s a reminder of Christ’s sacrifice for us. But if it’s not part of your prayer life, it’s not required and people won’t be offended if you don’t do it.
Sitting/standing – unless you have a physical problem, people probably would be offended if you remained sitting while everyone else stood. A general rule of thumb is that in mass, we stand when we pray. Also when we are listening to the Gospel. I think its just to make sure we haven’t fallen asleep, haha.
Kneeling – we kneel when the body of Christ is present, because we believe that the communion bread is the real presence of Jesus. So we kneel out of respect. However, we also realize that not everyone believes that. Most of the time when I have gone to mass with Protestant friends, they don’t kneel because they feel uncomfortable kneeling in front of what they believe is just bread. So it’s up to you. If kneeling doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable, do it. If it does, just sit in the pew and bow your head. *some* people might be offended, but they shouldn’t be. My sister tore both her ACLs and couldn’t kneel for like a year, so she just sat in the pew. Lots of little old ladies don’t kneel either, so people won’t think its the weirdest thing they ever seen. (And really they should have their attention elsewhere!)
Communion – yeah, people who aren’t Catholic don’t receive communion. It’s not cause we think Catholics are more worthy, but because we believe it’s the body of Christ. So that’s why we ask people who believe its just bread/believe it just represents Christ not to take it. If you feel awkward sitting in a pew, you can still go up with everyone else. Just when you get to the priest/whoever is giving out communion, fold your arms across your chest and they will give you a quick blessing. (Not a “Lord, save this heathen” blessing, just a quick little “In the name of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Amen” blessing. But really, no one notices/cares if you stay in the pew. Even Catholics won’t always receive, because they need to go to confession or something first. Or like, ate breakfast right before (you are supposed to not eat an hour before mass). And people are all filing in and out of rows anyway, so no one is really looking at you. I promise.
To be honest, we kinda suck at making people feel welcome. The point of a Catholic Church Mass is worship/prayer/learning/communion, and not so much fellowship like it is in Protestant churches. So they tend to be quieter, more reflective before/after. I know that for a lot of people, they feel unwelcome because no one is greeting them, and just leaving them be. It’s kinda the unspoken rule in Catholic Mass – let people be. We don’t know if someone is a visitor from out of town, or never been to mass, or in a desperate spiritual state and just wants to be with God and be left alone. So we tend to err on leaving people alone, for better or for worse.
Next time you go, ask your FI or FFIL/FMIL to find your the misselette. It’s a little book that has all the words and directions in it, plus the readings. They are usually at the front of the Church. Most Catholics don’t use them, but it’s not at all unusual to see some reading out of it. I would if our church had more. But then you can have a heads up on the standing/kneeling, or what the prayers are, etc.
Unless you start yelling “Jesus hates you!” in the middle of Mass, you won’t screw up. We realize that our service is kind of complex, and so we don’t hold it against people. Truth be told, *no* Catholic could tell you when to stand/kneel/what to say off the top of our head. We just do it when everyone else does it too.