Saint Andrew Catholic Church and School

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Wednesday Witness: The Challenge of Hospitality

At my home parish, our pastor recently implemented the practice of having parishioners stand and greet those around them just before Mass begins, like you do here at Saint Andrew. Predictably, the reaction was split: Some people like it as a small gesture of warmth, welcome and connection, while others think it’s unnecessary, corny or even disruptive to their preparations to worship God in the Divine Liturgy.

For several years now, Father has also challenged us to intentionally seek out and introduce ourselves to people we don’t know in the parish, especially people who appear to be new to the community or otherwise disconnected. I have never taken this challenge seriously. Instead, I have a list of rationalizations, excuses and cop-outs that will show up rather poorly when I have to explain them to Jesus. These are just a few:

  • Nobody new ever sits by us.
  • Father also asked us to pray in silent thanksgiving after the Mass, and when I’m done, most of the new people have already left.
  • Besides, I meet lots of new people working and volunteering at church.
  • And because people know me, it’s “inhospitable” (read: embarrassing) to introduce myself and admit I don’t remember all of them.

These reasons all have a common denominator: me. I have certain practices and expectations; I have a comfort zone in which I operate. This self-centeredness is the antithesis of hospitality.

I know this. I know that Christ does not want me to act in this way. I do so from a lack of charity, justice and fortitude. So I must pray for and practice these virtues.

Bishop Robert Barron likes to remind the Catholic faithful that they need not travel overseas to evangelize—that as soon as they step outside the church doors, they are in mission territory. I respectfully disagree with the bishop.We are in mission territory in our pews. Most of our parishioners are not regular Sunday Mass-goers. So any given Sunday, most of the people gathered for worship aren’t entirely sure where they are or why they’ve come. They have heard a call, however faintly. They are seeking something. And they have come to the Mass, perhaps this one last time, to find it.

If we were evangelizing—if we were inviting people into our church and walking intentionally with them—we wouldn’t see so many people and families wandering into Mass and out again, still lost and still alone.

So how does a "forced" greeting at the beginning of the Mass help matters? On the most fundamental level, those who say that greeting each other before Mass won’t make us more hospitable are right. Only a change of heart will do that, and conversion is hard, sometimes painful, work.

But there is an expression young people sometimes use these days: Fake it until you make it.

The truth is, you can only shake hands with the same people so many times before you make eye contact. And you can only make eye contact so many times before you start seeing the other person as a actual person—and then as an image of God. And when that happens, look out! As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”

The point to all this is that we have a job to do, given to us by Jesus Himself, and most of us don’t do it willingly. We need a nudge. If we protect our little hearts and just go through the motions, the conversion we are called to will take a long, long time—and frankly, souls that we could have invited into communion may be lost along the way.

But if we actually practice—if we look each other in the eye, take each other by the hand, and truly bless each other’s worship and day—we will see ourselves changed immediately. Our hearts will soften and enlarge. Our smiles will broaden and reach our eyes, and our courage will begin to solidify. We will begin to reach others—but just as importantly, they will reach us.

This is a shortened and revised version of a post entitled “Mass Hospitality: Welcoming Strangers to Worship,” online at Jim's personal blog ArchangelStomp.com. Please feel free to read and share!

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