Hospitality & Community
Hospitality and forming a sense of community in a parish are essential and go hand in hand in an evangelizing community. However, attempts to do both can sometimes be counter-productive.
An Atmosphere of Hospitality
True hospitality is not an isolated ministry or set of actions, but a culture or atmosphere. It involves the parking lot experience, preaching, worship aids, announcements, and much more. The only way to really be welcoming to newcomers is to learn to think like one and consider the experience from their perspective.
While prompting the assembly in the moment to be more hospitable (making seats available or greeting each other) may sometimes be necessary, it is much better to promote a culture where your parishioners naturally act this way.
Avoiding the Clique
Some parishes project an image of an unwelcoming clique when they believe they are being nice and "forming community." The problem is that chummy references to and recognition of members of the "parish family" generally refer to those "insider" staff members and ministers who know each other. But everyone else who comes to Mass is ministering in the world on behalf of the Church, celebrating birthdays, and deserving the same level of recognition.
Recognition and Inclusiveness
Whether offering blessings, making prayer intentions, or other forms of recognition, try to be as inclusive as possible. Can you recognize everyone having birthdays that month? If you are recognizing teachers in Catholic schools, why not also recognize the Catholic teachers working in public schools? Consider the people in the pews who will feel left out.
While they are just a start, simple acts of welcoming are an important start. A smile at the door, making room in the pew, and helping someone who looks confused are all important acts of hospitality.
Some parishes focus a lot of attention on newcomers, such as bringing them to the front of the sanctuary, handing them a microphone, and asking them to introduce themselves. While some may feel very welcomed by this attention, others may be mortified. Understand the tradeoffs of "aggressive" hospitality, especially for those who are unchurched or returning to the Church after a long absence.
[One] element needed for effective evangelization is hospitality and trust. The entire parish community, especially the parish leadership, must foster a spirit of hospitality and welcome. This sense of hospitality extends beyond those who participate in formal “welcome back” programs. It includes Catholics who approach the Church at key “teachable moments,” such as couples seeking the Sacrament of Matrimony, parents who have children in Catholic schools or parish-based religious education programs and are bringing their children for sacramental preparation, and Catholics who seek assistance from parish social ministry programs. Additionally, Catholics who choose to participate in a “welcome back” program ought to feel supported in their journey by the entire community.
Disciples Called to Witness: The New Evangelization
Committee on Evangelization and Catechesis, USCCB
The ministry of hospitality that we exercise at the Eucharist is not simply a sales device. It must be the liturgical enactment of the hospitality that permeates our daily living. Hospitality is not an add-on; for the Christian, it is the bottom line: “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me’” (Mt 25:34-35).
Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.
At its root, true hospitality is a spiritual discipline that reminds us of how we ourselves have been received by Christ. Hospitality can be extended in countless ways: A smile, an introduction, an invitation are all small exercises that, as with any exercise, are building blocks to something greater. The more one practices hospitality, the better one can welcome and receive others.
Heather Grennan Gary
Organizations & Websites
- Center For Parish Hospitality - Formed to help parishes and dioceses engage in a process which creates more welcoming communities. This process has been pilot tested in the Diocese of Brooklyn from 2007-2008 with most favorable results.
- Hold the Applause: Save the Praise For God Alone (U.S. Catholic)
- When I Was a Stranger (U.S. Catholic)
- Welcoming the Stranger (St. Anthony Messenger)
- The Ministry of Hospitality (America Magazine)
- The Need For Catholic Hospitality: Part I (Milwaukee Catholic Observer)
- Catholic (and Christian) Hospitality: What It Isn't (Milwaukee Catholic Observer)
- Catholic (and Christian) Hospitality: What It Is (Milwaukee Catholic Observer)
- Hospitality is Biblical -- And It's Not Optional (CatholicCulture.org)
- How Welcoming Are You? (St. Augustine Catholic)
Barriers to Hospitality & Community
- Confusing or stressful parking situations. Consider having (welcoming) parking attendants and clear signage.
- Confusing buildings. Is it obvious what door to enter through or where the restrooms are? Is it obvious who could be asked for help?
- Lack of instructions and unclear customs. The unchurched or dechurched may not know the Catholic Mass well, and certainly don't know any specifics of your parish. The new Roman Missal means the expectations of former Catholics are likely out-of-date. What is assumed by your congregation and would be unclear to a newcomer? Will they be able to sing along? Will they be able to say the assembly parts to the liturgy?
- All pews blocked at the aisles. It can be almost comical to see seating in Catholic churches with people sitting along each aisle with an empty expanse between them. Many who arrive later often have to climb over those sitting on the aisles. If you had guests coming over for dinner, would you treat them this way?
- Frowning on latecomers. I was once at a liturgy planning team meeting where the leader of the greeters said she wished we could lock the doors as soon as Mass started, to teach latecomers a lesson. Talk about being unclear on the role of your ministry! While most people are more subtle than that, many of us may subconsciously frown on those arriving late, thinking they are being disrespectful. Regardless of the reasons for their late arrival, are they any less worthy of Christ? Can your hospitality ministers watch for an help them?
- Frowning on children. Clearly, all children are not happy to sit through an entire Mass. One way a parish can be hospitable to young families is to offer options such as Children's Liturgy of the Word or other childcare for younger children during services. But whether these options are provided or not, parishes should welcome (and embrace) young families. Screaming kids obviously need a break from being in the sanctuary for everyone involved, but minor kid noises should be appreciated instead of greeted with dirty stares. As a parent, one of the most welcoming touches I ever saw was a rocking chair at the back of the sanctuary. "Let the children come to me!"
- Out-of-touch homilies and announcement. Consider what your preaching sounds like for a newcomer, who is not particularly versed in Church doctrine or your parish. Is it still meaningful? Is it even comprehensible? While we can't only target seekers, we should consider them first. When we do so, we will usually find that the message for them is also a more meaningful one for the rest of us.
- Talking about how hospitable the community is. I have heard parishes announce effusively how welcoming they are, while reality told a different story. Actions speak louder than words. Perhaps we think that saying it will make it a reality, perhaps by reminding parishioners of their role, but that is not necessarily the case. Don't tell me how hospitable you are, show me!
- Aggressive hospitality. Aggressively putting attention on newcomers is not received positively by everyone. People will react differently based on personality and cultural differences. Oftentimes, seekers want to avoid attention as they assess the community. This does not mean we should ignore them, but be appropriately warm and welcoming.
- We want your money. Have you ever registered for a parish and the first communication to come in the mail is a pack of offertory envelopes? I have. And if your parish uses Mass to constantly nag for money, that's what newcomers will hear. They may not stick around for long.
- Inaccessible offices. Some parishes will tell you that registering as a parishioner requires coming to the office during normal office hours. So I have to take time off of work to join? Hospitable parishes can meet parishioners administrative needs before and after weekend Masses and can meet parishioners' needs outside of normal office hours. Some set up a staffed information table inside the vestibule that can take care of any regular administrative needs.
Header photo by Lucas (Public Domain).