In my over 21 years as a priest and even longer in serving in some capacity at the Holy Liturgy I have seen more than a few people faint. Some just slump over, others go over with a real bang. Weddings are a big source of fainting spells but just about any long Mass can produce its share of a “lights out” experience. Last year I was serving as First Assistant Deacon for a Pontifical Solemn High Mass in the Basilica and prior to the Mass we predicted at least some one would pass out. It’s usually one of the torch bearers since they have to kneel on the marble for so long. Sure enough right at communion time, one of them went over, torch and all. It wouldn’t be a valid solemn  High Pontifical Mass if at least one didn’t pass out!

OK, so what’s going one here? Are people overwhelmed by the presence of God and then just “rest in the Spirit?”  Well, that’s a fine thought and I perhaps I should just stop the article here out piety. However, beyond the this holy thought there are probably other explanations.

  1. It could be the heat in some churches which causes dehydration. Dehydration then causes there to be a lower volume of blood which causes the pressure to drop and makes it harder to get the blood to the brain and out you go.
  2. Anemia – Some  women have borderline anemia especially at certain times of their cycle and this reduces the number of red blood and thus reduces the ability of the blood to deliver oxygen to the brain and, especially after standing a while or getting a little dehydrated,  out you go.
  3. Stress – In order to maintain proper blood pressure there must be a proper balance between two chemicals: adrenaline and acetylcholine. Adrenaline stimulates the body, including making the heart beat faster and blood vessels narrower, thereby increasing blood pressure. Acetylcholine does the opposite. Fainting can happen when something stimulates the vagus nerve and causes too much acetylcholine to be produced at the wrong time. Pain can do this, so can “situational stressors” such as something like  seeing blood or just prolonged stress that often happens at funerals or weddings. Such things cause too much acetylcholine to slow the heart, dilate the blood vessels, pressure drops more than it should, blood can’t reach the brain and out you go.
  4. Standing  for a length of time can also cause the blood to collect a bit in the lower legs. The movement of the blood back from the limbs is assisted by the movement of those limbs. I was always taught never to lock my knees when I was standing since this slowed blood flow and made blood accumulate in the legs. More blood in the legs means less blood that can go to the brain and out you go. It is important when standing to slightly bend the knees a bit and to allow for some movement of the legs by shifting your weight. This improves circulation and keeps the pressure at a proper level to get blood up to the brain. The same is true with kneeling.
  5. In some cases low blood sugar can cause one to faint. The brain requires blood flow to provide oxygen and glucose (sugar) to its cells to sustain life. Hence excessively low blood sugar can cause one to feel drowsy, weak and in some cases to  faint, especially if some of the other factors are present. Hence if one has been fasting (rare today!) before communion and also has a tendency to be hypoglycemic it is possible one can faint.

There are surely other causes, (some of them very serious but more rare) but let this suffice. It would seem that Masses and Church services are over-represented in the fainting department due to any combination of the above, especially: stress, dehydration, and standing or kneeling for long periods.

It is surely a weird experience to faint. I have done it a number of times related to an asthmatic cough I often get. When an extreme coughing episode ensues the rhythm of the heart is disturbed, blood pressure drops and out you go. It is a very strange experience to just see everything fade to black, the lights just go out and sometimes I can even feel myself falling but can do little about it. I just hope I fall gracefully :-)   I usually come to a moment or so later but it is strange to say the least. Our brains go only go without blood (oxygen) for a few seconds before unconsciousness envelopes and out you go.

We are wonderfully, fearfully made to be sure. And yet we are earthen vessels, fragile and in need of delicate balance. We are contingent beings, depending on God for every beat of our heart, and His sustaining of every function of every cell of our body. Maybe fainting in Church isn’t so bad since it helps keep us humble and that is always a good “posture” before God. Maybe before the immensity of God it is good to be reminded of our fragility and dependence upon Him for all things, even the most hidden processes of our body.

Enjoy this video of Church faintings and consider well that “To be absent from the body is to be present to God.” (2 Cor 5:8)

27 Responses

  1. Katherine G ERT says:

    I have a blood disorder called beta thalassemia intermedia (basically genetic anemia that only Mediterranean people can get), which causes shortness of breath due to low blood counts and the heart having to work harder because of the overproduction of iron (thalassemia is the opposite of iron-deficient anemia in terms of iron counts). Thank the Lord, I have not fainted in church yet. But I agree, fainting is a very weird feeling. I think the only reason I haven’t fainted in public yet is that I am very very determined to not go to the hospital unless I am dead or dying – we healthcare workers are not the best about receiving medical care at times! With anemia disorders, you kinda learn to get used to the symptoms. Interesting post, have a lot of people been fainting in your parish lately?

  2. Nick says:

    After going back to Mass after so many years, near the end of the sacrament, I sudenly felt ill and hot all at once. It increased when I left out the door, to the point where I slumped against the jamb of the back entrance of the church. Everything went black and I felt tingly all over. Then when I could see again I hurried out, threw off my belt, and fell down on my butt on the steps, overwhelmed by the feeling of illness and heat. I think it was due to the fact I hadn’t gone to Mass in a while, but it could also be due to the fact that Satan was trying to harm me. Or both.

  3. Fr. Francis says:

    Here’s a letter to Miss Manners about the etiquette of fainting at an ordination from a wonderfully precocious young lady (14 or so), who in fact fainted at my ordination: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2005-10-26/features/0510250349_1_etiquette-fainting-dear-miss-manners

  4. Roger says:

    My older brother used to faint at Mass all the time when we were kids. Just keel right over! And what a way to start the day watching the video! I laughed so hard it hurt! Thanks Father!

  5. Ryan Ellis says:

    Sometimes I wish I could faint on command when I’m forced to be at a bad Novus Ordo thanks to travel. Simple tip for the faint of heart: when you travel, look up your nearest Ex Form from the FSSP website. Don’t take the risk.

    Ex Forms have a 1 percent chance of inciting rage. Novus Ordos are about 50/50 out there in flyover country.

    • Bender says:

      Ryan —

      What would ever possess you to believe that you could get away with making such a vile and hateful remark?

    • THis was meant to be a light post but you have made heavy waether of it.

    • Troublemaker says:

      Hey Ryan – you could do what some of the other more enlightened Catholics do – just cut your nose off to spite your face and skip Mass! God will understand! He wants us to only have good and positive experiences at Mass, so if we can’t, just…do yourself a favor and stay in your motel room! :)

  6. Tim H says:

    It wouldn’t be a valid solemn High Pontifical Mass if at least one didn’t pass out!

    Msgr, you are a real piece of work. Don’t ever stop.

    Personally, I sometimes get a little weak when the priest holds the Eucharist up high, with the cup underneath and the Crucifix as the backdrop and says, “This is he lamb of God…” My knees sometimes try to buckle as I approach the altar.

    -Tim-

  7. jj says:

    I’ve been feeling this same way lately. Very light headed. Friends of mine have finally convinced me to go get it checked out. I can barely stand during Mass without the room spinning. I pray all is well with me. Our bodies truly are temples of God. Unfortunately, I have not always taken good care.

  8. Patty says:

    Thank you for this post, Monsignor Pope. I am a new Catholic – just confirmed this Easter Vigil. I am still thrilled to go to Mass and especially during Easter, I was always arriving at church early. You can imagine my surprise when, for several Sundays in a row as I arrived for 10:45 Mass, there was an ambulance pulling away from the church with someone who had fainted during the 9am Mass. I had not seen this during Lent or at all during the previous months of RCIA so I began to wonder what part of the 9am Easter liturgy might be so different and so exciting to cause fainting! I don’t want to take anything away from the excellent homilies at every Mass that very often stir the heart and soul – I mean that – we have some excellent homilists! However, we had a very warm Spring (and now a warm Summer) and I think that dehydration played a big part. As I recall, we are allowed to drink water before Mass. Perhaps a little hydration before Mass (for everyone!) during the warm months would be a good idea to prevent “going to ground”.

  9. Erica says:

    I tend to get lightheaded when I kneel for too long. I have fainted a couple times and have gotten close to fainting many others. This is not only in Church but other times too when I pray. As soon as I stand up I feel better. I can’t figure it out but it bothers me.

  10. Bill Daugherty says:

    Thanks for this, Msgr. Pope. As I lung cancer survivor, I have learned that every breath is borrowed from God. I think of it as the Holy Spirit sustaining me with the breath of life (Gen. 2:7).

  11. Amy R says:

    As a teenager, I fainted in Mass once. My 6’5″ son has keeled over a couple of times in Mass. The kneeler is part of the problem for him anyway.

  12. Ted says:

    As a young teen, I nearly fainted due to the fact that I was wearing a winter coat during the mass. Note: Catholics never take their jackets off. That episode led to years of anxiety attacks in church, which manifested themselves as near fainting episodes. It took a lot of self-help and years of reading up on the disorder to finally conquer it. I think that the amount of mental focus we have during Mass lends itself easily to disorders like this. Feeling trapped in a pew, or fear of embarassment sometimes triggers them as well. Anybody suffering from this should seek help because it can be conquered. God Bless.

    • newcomer says:

      Ted wrote “Catholics never take their jackets off.”

      Is that true? Is it rude to take off one’s jacket, sweater or coat in church or during Mass?

  13. Tapestry says:

    I have panic attacks, pounding heart, hypervenilating, the need to run
    away, so I always sit on the aisle near the door.
    I try to focus on the phrase ‘do not fear, I am with you’,
    but when you think you are having a
    heart attack you tend to want to leave rather then pass out.
    My daughter passes out, especially when Mass is overcrowded,
    a touch of claustrophobia, perhaps.
    What can I say, it might be genetics but you hang in there and
    do what you have to do. Amen.

  14. Deo volente says:

    Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps once in a great while, someone with an minor “obsession” may have been moved by a part of the Mass?

    I am reading Fr. Thomas Euteneuer’s book on Exorcism and The Church Militant (a great book for priests) and it seems conceivable that someone could possibly respond that way. We are after all fighting “principalities and powers…”. And you are confecting the Eucharist on the altar, Monsignor.

    D.v.

  15. Laura R. says:

    I thought the video was hilarious! — assuming that none of the people who fainted got hurt. And I found it interesting that by far the greater number of fainters in the wedding scenes were grooms — some great apprehension going on there, perhaps? It’s useful to know that dehydration is a factor — I agree with Patty that we would all do well to drink some water shortly before Mass, since that’s allowed.

  16. Vijaya says:

    My sister passed out on Good Friday … and we are all convinced it was the Holy Spirit. I do not jest. She has been touched deeply … it’s almost like when He said “into your Hands I commend my spirit,” that she did hers too.

  17. Cynthia BC says:

    Ted – the reason Catholics never take off their jackets is that there is no place to hang them!!

    I’ve yet to visit a parish that has a coat room, or even one of those folding racks set up in a social hall. I find this lack rather puzzling…it sends a message “don’t hang around.”

  18. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    Fainting, (medically termed syncope )can end up being an expensive experience for the faint of heart. Most fainting episodes occur in the morninging and when the victim has not eaten breakfast or been hydrated well. The victim is usually maintaining an upright position and static postion for a long enough period to cause a drop in blood pressure resulting in the hearts ability to maintain enough pressure to get enough oxygenated blood to the head. These factors should be taken into consideration when someone faints and consiousness is regained within seconds of passing out. If this is the first time this occurs one should not feel a need to seek medical care unless the symptoms of dizziness, near syncope ( almost fainting but not losing consciousness and regaining your coherance ) , tingling sensations or disorientation persist. The first thing one should do is get fluid and food in the body and remain seated with feet elevated. Those who tend to panic and run to the doctor can expect to have a battery of expensive test which 99 % of the time only rule out that nothing serious was identified. As a cardiovascular technologist for thirty years and working in the medical field since 1974, I have seen the inexperienced and uninformed get shafted for money they could easily have avoided spending if they had just been given a little reasonable advice and taken a few rational steps to assess the situatuin before running to the emergency room or doctors office in a panic. If the fainting victim has underlying medical conditions or is taking medications at the time of the event, this would be the exception. When you walk in the door of a medical facility, their second thought after assessing the patient’s condition is to avoid malpractice suits and that base is usually covered by ordering expensive test that would otherwise have been avoided with a little education and cautious patience. So eat a good breakfast and hydrate well in the morning before meeting the physical demands of the day and if you feel a little queezy or light headed, by all means sit down, elevate your feet even if it’s during the consecration. God will understand even if the congregation doesn’t.

  19. MargaretC says:

    At the Easter Vigil Mass when I was received into the Church, one of the altar boys fainted. I think it was a combination of incense and locking his knees. One of our RCIA team that year was a registered nurse, so she hauled him back into the sacristy and revived him.

  20. mom says:

    Choirs seem to induce fainting, too. At the yearly performance of Messiah at my children’s school someone always keeled over.

  21. judy robinson says:

    Thanks for sharing … Very informative … Wish more people would choose to enlighten themselves … Videos quite a laugh.

  22. Virginia says:

    I have felt like I was close to fainting two times now while in deep prayer with God. Both times I have been sitting in my bed, and studying the Word and praying about things that evoke alot of emotion from me to the point where I’m bawling crying. This is also because I feel like God is so close to me. I pray for peace and suddenly I stop crying, and everything gets really peaceful and a wave of calm washes over me. I start to get this slightly tingly feeling in my arms and legs, and it feels like a general anesthetic is setting in or something so it feels a little numb and like I’m sort of floating. I close my eyes, and the light is a warm, light glow, and I know I am in God’s presence, and there is nothing that interferes with the peace I feel besides the fact that the more I relax into it, the more the numbness and tingling overcomes me, and the more I have to remind myself to breathe as my heart starts literally pounding as fast as it ever has before. So it is scary. I start thinking, “Am I going to pass out? Am I going to have a seizure or something??” because I’m starting to tremble. But I almost feel bad because I could be doubting God’s presence, and I feel like I need to let this presence envelope me completely. So I’m torn, and I ask if it is Him and to help me not be afraid. My heart is racing and it’s scaring me even more, so I decide to open my eyes and snap out of it because if I faint, no one would know until the next morning if something terrible happened.

    Crazy, right? Do you think that this is a normal thing to happen? Is it bad of me to be scared and snap out of it? Is it something to do with my adreneline that could in fact cause me to pass out or worse? I just don’t want to hurt myself by having my rush of emotions get the best of me, but I also don’t want to consciously choose to leave God’s presence if something good is supposed to happen when the feeling totally takes over. Is this normal, should I tell a doctor or my priest? Ah I don’t know what to think, I’m only 15 and not sure if I’m just totally over thinking this or not.

  23. LittleRomanGirl says:

    ITS THE INCENSE! When Im in a high mass with lots of smoke, I want to pass out. It always makes me nauseous. Even priests are bothered by the incense of some other priests, so truly they should stop this ritual

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