My Dear Parishioners:
Finally! The Season of Christmas has concluded. Of course, for most of society it concluded weeks ago. For some it concluded as the sun went down on Saturday, December 25. But we know the truth of the season. Christmas begins with the first Mass on Christmas Eve and the season concludes with the final Mass on the weekend of the Baptism of the Lord. Next we move on to Ordinary Time and will soon enter the JOYFUL Season of LENT! I will address that joyful season another time. . .
Several years ago, I was contacted by a pastor here in Owensboro and asked to speak to his liturgical ministers about ‘hospitality’. I agreed and then stood before 150 members of Immaculate parish and shared my ideas. My talk was called: “Hospitality and the Eucharist”. Interestingly enough, I discovered there is no one document or writing published by the Church on this topic (maybe I should publish one, huh?).
The pastor asked that I address the fact that we do have ‘greeters’ and they are indeed Ministers of Hospitality. However, every liturgical minister is a ‘minister of hospitality’. I spoke to lectors, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, servers, cantors, choirs, musicians, and even presiders (the pastor!). Each of us in our own way must be hospitable as we gather around the altar of God.
What can we do to show that the Eucharist is a communal activity? Greeting people at the door is a start. It alerts us to the fact that we are going to do something with others. “Welcome” implies “I am happy that you have come.” The first impression a visitor receives is extremely important. Hospitality is everybody’s ministry. We practice hospitality in choosing where we sit. Do we take the aisle seat and block access to the rest of the pew or chairs? Are those who come after us forced to crawl over us to find a place? What does it say to latecomers when the only open places are way up front? And how do we acknowledge the presence of those who come in and sit next to us? Hospitality is not restricted to the ministers at the church door.
It is also helpful if we think of the first part of the Mass as “gathering rites” rather than “introductory rites” or “entrance rites,” because “gathering” names the purpose of these actions and prayers: “to ensure that the faithful who come together as one establish communion” (G.I.R.M., 46). We exercise the ministry of hospitality when we pick up the service book and sing the gathering hymn. If we are actually doing something together, we should look like it.
We practice hospitality when we open our minds and hearts to the proclamation of the Scriptures. When we listen to the psalm refrain and repeat it back as best we can, even if the melody is new, we are honing our listening skills and training our ears to hear the word of God. And this word, received in the Holy Spirit, broadens our understanding of whom we must welcome into our parish assembly. The U.S. bishops’ document Built of Living Stones (2001) underlines this idea: “The Gospel requires that particular care be taken to welcome into the Church’s assembly those often discarded by society—the socially and economically marginalized, the elderly, the sick, those with disabilities, and those with special needs” (No. 42). The General Intercessions expand the horizons of our prayer. Understanding the Eucharist as sharing a meal together rather than “receiving Holy Communion” lies at the heart of this communal understanding of the Mass.
Parishes where the liturgical assembly is a real community must take special care to welcome visitors. A stranger should be able to enter a church and feel perfectly at home. But when you enter a gathering that has a real feeling of community, you may feel out of place unless you are welcomed. I have lived in parishes where we had to be continually reminded to welcome visitors, lest they get the impression that we were some sort of “clique.” The feeling of community was that palpable.
Some Catholics think this whole “welcoming” business is destroying our traditional sense of reverence and replacing it with some folksy, feel-good experience. This is a false conclusion. If you wish to invite a guest into your home, you must have space—you have to “make room.” To invite others into our hearts and our worship, we must make room. The enemy of reverence is not hospitality, but arrogance. If we wish to worship in an atmosphere of reverence, we must rid our churches, our congregations and our hearts of any superfluous self-importance, pride and ambition that might be filling up our “guest spaces.” We must empty ourselves in order to make room for the other to enter in. This is the difficult part of hospitality.
Arrogance and all that goes with it need to be “sacrificed” at the Eucharist. When we are weighed down with pride and self-importance, it is difficult to mount the cross with Jesus, who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). Emptying ourselves of arrogance is the key to experiencing reverence. I ended my talk by quoting one of my favorite people, Blessed Mother Theresa. She said:
“The biggest disease is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted.”
Our parish of Saint Stephen is indeed a welcoming and hospitable parish. I do believe that. However, there is always room for us to improve. We are too good not to work and become better! As we move now into the space of Ordinary Time we recognize the time we have before the great Season of Lent. Let us begin today by welcoming one another sincerely as we gather around the altar of our salvation.
Blessings, Fr. John