Mass Hospitality: Welcoming Strangers to Worship

Not long ago, our pastor implemented the practice of having parishioners stand and greet those around them just before Mass begins. 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.

What struck me most among the reactions, however, was something I saw on social media: That standing and saying good morning to each other before Mass is fake in some sense and doesn’t make us more welcoming. This observation bothered me enough that I set out to determine why. Here’s what I discovered in my own heart.

* * * * *

For several years now, Fr. Richards has 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 in my work and volunteering at the 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. Even here in St. Michael—the Bubble, God’s Country—we are in mission territory in our pews. Most of our parishioners are not regular Sunday Mass-goers. Many don’t believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, most rarely if ever go to Confession, and only about a third participate in any form of religious education (Catholic school or faith formation).

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.

And any given Sunday, Father has to attempt to thread the needle: giving fitting worship and praise to God in the Mass, sharing Christ’s Body and Blood with the Catholic faithful in the Eucharist, and illuminating Sacred Scripture in a way that satisfies the comfortable, feeds the spiritually hungry, heals the wounded, exhorts the sinner, nurtures the child—and evangelizes the lost, the curious, and the actively seeking. He attempts this in the context of the deepest, most profound and powerful, supernatural act of worship we have as Catholics, which most practicing Catholics scarcely comprehend.

But that’s not what the Mass is for! It’s not about evangelizing and it’s not about us—it’s about worshipping God!

That’s true. And yet the unchurched come to the Mass on Sunday expecting, or at least hoping, to be fed nonetheless. And all around us, other churches encourage them to do so: “Come as you are. Have a cup of coffee and hear about God’s love for you. All are welcome.”

Wow. That’s quite a challenge for Father!

No. It’s a challenge for us. The Catholic Church actually teaches that it is the work of the laity to evangelize the waiting world. We are the front-line workers, active in the world. We are the ray of God’s light sent to pierce the darkness in whatever situation we find ourselves. The priests feed us so we can feed the world.

Aha! So the Mass really is about worship, and not about some forced hospitality. We are receiving spiritual nourishment so we can reach out to others outside of the Mass!

Of course. But this spiritual nourishment requires something of us: that we accept and carry out the mission. Jesus said, “Go and make disciples.” Are we doing that?

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 what about this phony hospitality—this forced greeting at the beginning of the Mass that draws us out of our prayer and preparation? How does this 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.

How do I know? Because my family has made a change. We are sitting someplace new in the church each Sunday, in order to be near new people so we can greet and meet them before and after Mass. None of us like the idea, and the first week, all we succeeded in doing was shaking hands with a couple and a young woman we didn’t know before Mass—as usual, both were gone by the time we finished our prayers after Mass. (By the way, Father never said we couldn’t take a minute to be hospitable before our prayers after Mass—and I know I have used those moments of silence to avoid interacting with others even as I attempted to interact with God.)

But the next week we tried again, in roughly the same location. This time the young woman was with her husband and children, and they continued to pray together after we had finished. I lingered and complimented their family when they finished. We introduced ourselves, talked a bit, and parted, at least as acquaintances if not yet friends. It was beautiful and so simple—and I know it had as deep an effect on me as it did on them. Probably deeper.

* * * * *

We are called, not just to welcome, but to invite, the stranger. We are tempted to put the onus on them, to have them fill out a form, or sign in, or stand up to  be recognized. But we are the ones who claim to be disciples. This is our work, not theirs. The saints have taught us throughout the ages to hear the knock of the needy, the cry of the poor, and to answer—even leaving behind ecstasies and visions—because Christ is present in a more real and opportune way in the person who waits for us.

Will we respond? I haven’t—at least not consistently. But virtue is a habit and requires practice. God willing, these baby steps before and after Mass will help me along the way.

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