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!

I hope you don’t mind a “reprint” article, but I learned that a number of regular readers of this blog missed this article I wrote over about a year ago. Since today was a long one, I thought to reprint this older post, with summer weather setting in fainting spells are more common. Further, weddings are in full season. It might not be bad to re post this primer on fainting.

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)

35 Responses

  1. Nick says:

    i offer up my faints just like I offer up my time playing video games :)

  2. jj says:

    I did miss this article. I don’t know why I find it funny. Some of these syptoms can be very serious for a lot of folks. Maybe I’m reflecting on the days before my conversion to the Catholic Church, when as a child in the Protestant assemblies, we kids would mock faintings when we got home. Of course that would get us in big trouble but we did it anyway. Since we are approaching Ordinary time and are not so solemn, I would love to read an article on the bloopers of the Church. Is it a sin to laugh at grandma losing her wig at the alter? The Church’s most Funniest Bloopers. Please don’t take me too seriously.

  3. John says:

    No kidding Msgr! My oldest daughter fainted at Church on Sunday. My wife insisted we get her checked out with the Pediatrician. I’ll just tell her to read your post instead! :)

  4. Cynthia BC says:

    Re #5 – clearly an argument for serving coffee and doughnuts before Mass ;)

  5. teo matteo says:

    this post brings to mind a wedding I attended a few years back. Summer-time, beautiful church all is ready for the vows when a groomsman goes down. Not to worry. In trots the ushers down the aisle and they grab the poor guy. One at his shoulders the other his legs and they wisk him to the back. You could almost hear the thump as they deposited him in the vestibule and then reentered the church dusting off their hands. Nuptials carried on.

  6. Restless Pilgrim says:

    As an altar server for many years I specialized fainting on major feasts. Hot weather and heavy robes were not a good combination! If this is a problem for you I suggest wearing very light, airy clothes when serving.

    The main issue I think is the issue of standing. I go to a Byzantine Rite liturgy where we stand for the majority of the hour and half liturgy. I think the real trick is making sure you don’t lock your knees and periodically shift your feet to keep the blood flowing. When I had to stand for long periods as a server at Easter I would regularly curl my toes (like I was trying to pick up sand on a beach) for the same reason.

    • Cynthia BC says:

      The parish in which I grew up didn’t have AC in the nave, but did have a vent on the floor near the sacristy (sp?). The other server and I would (very quietly) squabble over whose turn it was to stand over the vent.

    • Yes, the locked knees are a problem. Standing too long without moving makes the blood accumulate in the legs!

  7. Maria Smith says:

    I remember as a child, we had to fast 3 hours before receiving Holy Communion. Also, back in those days,
    the Church I attended, named Incarnation, in NY (a mini St. Patricks Cathedral) did not have air conditioning.

    Normally, I would make it through Mass and come home (had to walk 3 blocks) and head for food, Other times, I hate to say, I would either feel faint or throw up nothing. When I start to see polka dots, I know I am going to faint and so would go to my nun, sitting in the back behind the class and tell her… how humiliating because she would take me further back at the end of the church, get a chair and make me sit there with my head between my legs. Now, Communion would start but I was not allowed to get any but this trick of hers did work for some reason and my fainting spells would correct itself (maybe extra blood to the brain?-who knows) Either way, I will never forget it.

    As an adult, we have had people pass out when the weather is very hot and the a/c breaks (I now live in Miami) and also some elderly with sugar problems, as you mentioned or heart.

    The part I always felt bad about was not receiving (and all my classmate chuckling) :)

    • Fascinating story, especially the point of seeing polka dots. I too have notice than when you’re going out the eyes are the first signal. I suppose one of the roots of the expression lights out.

  8. Patrick Lally says:

    When I was an altar boy we had a high altar with seven big marble steps corresponding to the seven steps to attaining the priesthood. I can remember several instances when an altar boy would faint and descend those stairs like a Slinky. We would laugh for days afterward at school!

  9. Nondignus says:

    You miss an important element –which although not technically a part of the liturgy–may well be the culprit of all this fainting you have witnessed. Dull, boring and pointless homilies that can put a person in the pews into instant sleep—which may well appear like he or she has fainted. A theology professor once told me that the best antidote to a poor sermon is to go outside, have a smoke and come back in for the rest of the Mass.

  10. richard says:

    Reminds me of the time in 1946 or 1947 when I fainted during a low Mass and a nun picked me up and led me outside the church. I will always attribute that fainting spell to a lack of nutrition because our family was too poor to afford any more than the minimum.

  11. Allie says:

    Although I’ve never fainted during Mass, the thing that tends to get me close is incense. I try to sit further away during those Masses to prevent passing out…

  12. Cara says:

    I blacked out at my own wedding. I simply got so busy that day, I forgot to eat. We were kneeling before communion; I remember leaning toward my new husband and stammering that I felt really warm. Apparently I kept leaning–all the way to the floor. I woke up laying in the aisle with several guests, including a friend who is a nurse, standing over me; and Father standing on the sanctuary steps, shaking his finger at me and asking “Did you eat???”

    Ah, well, it wouldn’t be a wedding without something going wrong….

  13. MargaretC says:

    This made me smile. When I was received into the Church several years ago during the Easter Vigil, one of the altar boys locked his knees — after repeated instructions from the Pastor not to do so — and passed out. Fortunately, one of the members of our RCIA team was a registered nurse. She took him out into the sacristy and revived him.

  14. Sue says:

    Reminds of a Midnight Mass when I was still young enough to believe in Santa Claus. All of a sudden there arose such a clatter and everyone looked around to see what was the matter, except me. I was looking up knowing it was Santa and his reindeer on the roof of the church! Imagine my disappointment to see them dragging out a young man that had fainted. That video is hilarious (because I’m not in it)!

  15. Katherine says:

    Have priests ever fainted in your experience? I wondered once after a dizzy spell how they can manage with the vestments.

  16. Ron says:

    You think this is FUNNY‽ Quoting Corinthians doesn’t make it so! You’re really sick!

  17. Sara says:

    Oh my goodness! I have done this a lot before! I’m an alter searver and can’t help it! Sit, stand, knee, stand knee sit stand sit knee it is pretty hard to stay up!

  18. David Weight says:

    I believe that the main reason is high CO2 levels. I have seen a few faintings at my local church. Usually because people don’t open windows, probably fearing that those nearby will suffer a draught. No air changes in a hour would compare with 4 or 5 air changes per house it the space had a designed mechanical ventilation system.

  19. Ted Barker says:

    I used to faint due to the lack of food on Sunday morning. We were required to fast before church. Then, all the up down, kneeling, etc. Usually right before communion, I would go lights out.

  20. Lucy C. says:

    I’m 15 years old and I am a triplet. I am a girl with 2 brothers of which all of us are altar servers. I have never fainted while serving while one of my brothers has twice. One time in august and just yesterday, the 30th of November. My other brother has never fainted either. I’m very worried because I find it strange that he has fainted only in church & no where else. Also, he doesn’t have low/high blood pressure or anything, hes very healthy. The first time he fainted, we took him to the emergency room, they ran all these tests and of course there was nothing wrong. But we did have to take him to get two root canals and his teeth bonds because he managed to break/ crack his two front teeth. The first time he fainted, he was standing up and all the sudden he fell and hit his mouth on the stairs.
    The second time he fainted, yesterday, he was kneeling down on the stairs while the priest was preparing communion and all the sudden he fell back and hit the back of his head/neck. I was so terrified i ran over and was the first one at his aid. His eyes were open yet he was asleep. i managed not to cry as much as the last experience but immediately after the incident we left the church and decided not to take him to the ER. When we got in the car he complained about his vision being spotty and had a major headache. Then he began to throw up. Today he is at the doctors office. Hopefully everything turns out well.

    Sorry this was long. I just really wanted to share my story.

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