Shortly after the shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a friend on Facebook posted a concern. She asked, in light of this kind of violence, how are we supposed to welcome strangers in our parishes?
I understand her fear. While worshiping this weekend in a downtown parish in a major city, I heard police sirens at least twice. They were very close. I wondered if they were on the same block as the church. The first time it happened, I looked around, assessing how to escape if necessary. It also gave me some reassurance to know that this particular church had hired security long before the Texas shooting.
Yet as Christians, we are called to be daring. One need look no further than Scripture. Even before the time of Jesus, people were asked by God to do things that required courage. For example, Noah built an ark before there was any sign of the deluge to come. Just imagine doing something like that today while enduring the mockery of those around you.
Then there is the story in Matthew of Jesus walking on water towards His disciples, terrifying them because they thought He was a ghost. When He told them who He was, Peter asked for verification. You would think Peter would ask Jesus to tell them something only He would know in order to prove His identity. Instead, Peter tells Jesus to command him to walk on water. That’s daring. It tells us something of what Peter thought of Jesus that he challenged Jesus in this particular way.
Sometimes I wonder what it was like to live as a Christian in the early days of persecution. How did you evangelize, knowing it could cost you your life? How did you trust newcomers, knowing a mistake in judgment could affect everyone?
Living in the United States, I realize I am lucky. Christians around the world are persecuted in ways that we are not in this country. I often question whether I would have the courage to be Christian knowing it could cost me my earthly life.
I tend to avoid controversy and sometimes find myself cautious about confessing my faith. To admit to being Catholic in the United States means I belong to that sect that many view as completely backward and counter-cultural in their thinking. I have learned that to say I am Catholic is to invite criticism. While I do wear medals and a crucifix, I rarely have the courage to wear something as simple as a blatantly Catholic t-shirt.
Pope Benedict, in his encyclical Spe Salve, said, “Man was created for greatness-for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched.”
I am not fond of being stretched, even in small ways.
Welcoming the stranger, whether at Mass or elsewhere, is one of those things that can grow us. Well before the recent church shootings, it was a subject that we talked about on the Liturgy Committee of the parish I attended. It’s a complicated topic even in the best of times.
We tend to think that to welcome another means to spend time talking with them. That leads to difficulties. Mass is not like Protestant worship. Catholics know that when they walk into their parish, Jesus is present in the tabernacle. With that in mind, we need to be reverent from the start.
Mass is about worship, not socializing. Parishes often offer donuts and coffee after Mass for getting to know people. That is the proper time and place to be social.
We receive Jesus at Mass — think about what that implies. We need time to pray, to prepare for this very special moment. If we instead spend that time chatting with others, we are getting in the way of their prayer and the prayer of others around us.
Yet Jesus is all about relationships. To worship in your own little bubble, without considering those around you, is also not appropriate. We are, after all, the body of Christ. We do not want fellow parishioners to feel isolated while worshiping.
Helping people to feel welcome is difficult in any situation. What makes one person comfortable might make another cringe. I have a friend who was hugged in welcome by a greeter in a parish out of town. He loved it. I know a lot of people who would not return to a parish like that.
Yet there are some things that are appropriate in any situation. A warm smile as you enter the building can brighten somebody’s day. A quiet greeting acknowledges the person being greeted and might be among the few times that person has any human interaction that day.
Sometimes it’s as simple as making room for other people. We once had a priest in our parish who encouraged us to move to the center of the pew. I never thought much about it, but did get into the habit of sitting towards the center, leaving room for people who entered after me to share the pew without having to crawl over me.
Then one day I attended a parish while I was out of town and learned what a difference this can make. We got to Mass and saw a large number of people searching for a place to sit. I thought it might be standing room only, but when I looked around I saw that most of the pews had open spaces. In fact, in most of them, people were sitting at the end of the pews. I was surprised at how unwelcome I felt. It rather gave the impression of a parish full of people who had come early enough to claim “their” end spot. The rest of us, not wanting to be rude and crawl over people, were milling around looking for a spot.
I realize some people need the ends. Some people are handicapped in such a way that the end spot makes worship much easier. Some have anxiety orders or feel under the weather and might need to sit where they feel they can easily leave if necessary. I realize that there are many reasons to want to sit at the end, but I also realize that those reasons don’t apply to most people.
If you do need to sit at the end, you can still be welcoming by indicating to others that the seats next to you are available. That was something also lacking at that parish I attended. In the end, we said “excuse me” and made our way past some people who were not willing to leave their end seats.
Another way to be welcoming is to be willing to help out if you notice help is needed. We were at a parish one Sunday where the worship aid was difficult to follow. At one point I was lost. Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the man behind me. He had a big grin on his face as he showed me where in the worship aid we were. I still smile when I think about him.
He was not the only helpful person there. We were worshiping with my mother-in-law, who was in a wheelchair, and initially needed help figuring how to get in. As a visitor, I only interacted with a few people in the parish that day. They were all like that man who was so helpful. Even though I never met most of the people there, I tend to think of everyone there as welcoming. You might be that person for a stranger, the person who represents the entire parish.
How and when we leave Mass can also make a difference. At the parish we usually attend, most people sing until the last verse of the last hymn before leaving. They tend to linger after Mass. My husband and I attended a Mass out of town a couple of weeks ago where almost everyone was filing out during the closing hymn. We only sang two verses, but that was all the time it took to practically empty the church. I did not notice anybody taking time to talk in the parking lot, either. It gave the impression of a parish full of people who did not have any time for one another. This group of people who had very recently received Jesus could not take the time to pray after Mass or greet fellow worshipers.
My Facebook friend was concerned with how to welcome the strangers in our midst at Mass when we are fearful. It helps to get into the habit before we become afraid. If at Mass you find yourself becoming wary of any particular person, it might help to analyze where your fear is founded on something, like a particular action, or whether it is an unfounded concern. We cannot let fear win or we may find we end up not worshiping at all. Instead, remember what Pope Benedict said, and let yourself be stretched.