One of the realities of my being a bishop is that, when I visit a parish for Mass, the priests and the faithful are intentionally at their best.
The church is usually full, the musicians are well-rehearsed, the hymns are beautifully upbeat. Our priests go the extra mile to put out the welcome mat. After Mass, as folks are leaving church, they generously share their friendly handshakes and broad smiles that I was there.
Because I’m your bishop, I’m going to love you, even more because of our experience together at Mass. And why? Because at Mass we have celebrated and received Jesus in word and sacrament, in sacred Scriptures and in the Eucharist.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every visitor to all of our parishes had the same experience? When we pray to have “vibrant parishes,” that’s a big part of what we’re talking about.
But let’s be honest. That’s not always the story. If visitors do not feel welcomed by the ushers or greeters; if a parishioner acts like they own whatever pew they’re seated in and glares as if the visitor is invading their space, visitors may never come back. They may even walk away from God altogether.
All of our parishes have visitors, lots of visitors, especially at Christmas and Easter. Perhaps he or she is a relative who left the faith but is willing to go to Mass with the family during a visit home. Perhaps he or she is a new neighbor, looking for a way to connect with others. Perhaps they are struggling with some painful personal issue and came into church as an act of desperation.
Do we make visitors feel welcome? How do we let them know that they are welcome? We, you and I, need to welcome them. We, you and I, need to welcome them even if we suspect — especially if we suspect — that they have serious differences with us in matters of faith, politics or morality. Everyone is to be welcome in our churches. And we need to show them so.
They should experience a liturgy so moving and joyous that they can’t wait to go to Mass again. How does that happen? And how can we all help it to happen?
Connecting with Jesus
Words like, “Are you new here?” or “Have we met before?” are good starters to help people know that they are in the right place.
The next step is to recognize that Jesus rejoices because YOU and I are at Mass. But how do we look when we’re at Mass? Grateful and engaged, or bored and disconnected?
We need to share our sincere welcome with others as we are welcomed by Jesus. Our words, our smiles, our posture go a long way in making that happen.
The Mass isn’t just an item to check off a “to do” list. Our relationship with Jesus is so important, so profound. The God who created us and loves us so much that he sent his Son to live like us and to die for us so that we can get to heaven: that’s what Mass is about. Our words, our singing, our very being in church is our response to that profound gift of Jesus’ presence to us.
What is especially important in our welcome to each other is how we’re focused on what’s going on in the Mass; enthusiastic singing — regardless of how good our voice is; how we share, either the pew we’re sitting on or the handshake of peace. These are the most convincing ways of welcoming others to Mass. When we come to Mass with the intention to really connect with Jesus, we not only connect to the person who is next to us but we likewise help them to come closer to Jesus and they help us in return.
Following Mass, we can “put out the welcome mat” further by letting others know how happy we are they came and express the hope that they will come again.
And, as a matter of fact, these suggestions of how we treat visitors to our churches are how we also need to treat each other as regulars in church.
We are, in fact, as church, the Body of Christ. We come to learn Jesus at Mass through his word shared in sacred Scriptures.
We come to love Jesus as we receive him in holy Communion and in the very act of being together.
And we come to live Jesus as we seek to take out of church him whom we have received, in word and in sacrament. He becomes the strength for us, who lightens our burdens and gives us a new perspective of hope as we go back to our day-to-day lives.
As I shared in the beginning of this little reflection, I’m always grateful for the welcome I receive when I visit any of our parishes. But my hope and prayer is that we all do the same for each other because we as church are truly family, and the true family of Jesus himself.
We need to greet every person at Mass as if he or she is Jesus. And we need to go out of church to do the same as well: treat all whom we meet in our neighborhoods, workplaces, schools, malls, etc., as if she or he is Jesus.
And that, my friends, is our challenge: “Putting out the welcome mat” in church and beyond.