I cringe when a priest begins Mass by asking everyone to shake hands and introduce themselves to the folks around them. To me, there is something false and forced about that, a simulacrum of the friendly gesture it is intended to be. It’s too little, too late. Parish hospitality must begin long before people are parked in their seats. It entails a lot more than ripping open a bag of Oreos and serving them with coffee after Mass.
I will never forget what I learned many years ago from a lay pastoral minister who was conducting a morning of reflection for women that began with breakfast. Although the group was rather small and the meeting took place in a cavernous parish hall, she took great care in setting the table. She lugged in her grandmother’s china and silver, arranged fresh flowers, made use of beautiful stemware and table linens, all for a meal that was to last less than an hour. Yet, it set a tone for the whole morning. The women who attended not only felt welcomed but treasured. The way they were treated raised the level of reflection and discussion, and that meal became a turning point in the development of a women’s parish discussion group.
It also made a lasting impression on this then-young cleric: It is in the details that true hospitality is established. In the gracious way the parish secretary answers the phone, never knowing whether it’s a nervous bride-to-be or a grieving parent at the other end. In what the DRE says to the woman with three children who shows up six weeks late to register for Religious Education classes. In how the eucharistic ministers greet people at the church doors. In a parish hall that is warm in the winter and cool in the summer. In the volunteer meeting that ends in an hour, mindful of people’s valuable time. In asking same-sex couples to bring up the offertory gifts. In refusing to hector parishioners about the collection when Mass attendance is low due to bad weather or summer vacation. In taking the Oreos out of the bag and putting them on a nice plate. In offering current, quality, and free-for-the-taking reading materials to all parishioners. In having well-trained lectors and musicians at every weekend Mass.
Ecclesial hospitality is a natural outcome of the larger attitude of a faith community. Believing the Risen Christ is in its midst, a parish recognizes that presence in both visitors and neighbors. Guest and host each have an important part to play and something lovely and profound happens in the exchange. The subtleties and holiness of hospitality begin to emerge when we remember Abraham and his angelic visitors under the terebinth tree or Mary visiting Elizabeth or even the disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Of course, it’s a constant challenge to translate these religious precepts into the habits of parish living. Creating an atmosphere of welcome and graciousness means first building an awareness of the value of such a climate and how it is an essential element in a vibrant parish. It also means encouraging a sense of the congregation’s ownership of the parish. On my first visit to a nearby Reform synagogue, one of the religious education teachers gave me a tour. She asked if I would like to see the scrolls of sacred Scripture that are locked in the ark, the holiest place of this house of worship. With a great air of confidence, she obtained the key, opened the ark, and unrolled part of the Torah for me. It was a beautiful work of art, but even more impressive was the comfortable ease with which she did all this. Her self-assurance made this guy in a Roman collar feel like a warmly welcomed insider!
In my parish we don’t have designated “ministers of hospitality.” Everyone, from the staff on out, is responsible for extending that sort of Christian welcome. I admit that we are better at this on some days than on others, but it seems to be working. We do spend an awful lot of time washing real glasses after parish receptions and enrolling latecomers in First Communion classes, but I guess you could say we save a little time at the very beginning of Mass. There’s no need for further introductions. Chances are very good that you already know who is sitting next to you.