By Richard McCorry, D.Min.
“The biggest disease is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted.” — Blessed Mother Teresa
Every pope since Pope Paul VI (except for the very short pontificate of John Paul I) has written about the “New Evangelization.” The New Evangelization has been defined as that effort to re-evangelize countries that have previously embraced Christ’s message but where many have grown lackluster in their commitment to the Gospel. A year ago our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, established the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, and commissioned it with the task of re-evangelizing traditionally Christian countries (Ubicumque et Semper, 9/21/2010). Benedict XVI has also announced that the “New Evangelization” will be the theme of the next world Synod of Bishops in 2012.
Besides these papal pronouncements it is obvious to the faithful churchgoing Catholic that many have fallen away from regular attendance at the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. Typically a third of registered parishioners attend the weekly celebration of the Mass. So undoubtedly there needs to be a sustained effort toward re-evangelizing our communities. Clearly we can anticipate that future pronouncements and direction will come from the Pontifical Council and World Synod of Bishops.
What can we do to prepare for this wave of evangelization and hope that will wash over the worldwide Church? It seems that the most basic element of this new evangelization is creating more welcoming communities. What good would it do to go door to door inviting people to attend our churches, if what they found when they arrived were less than welcoming and hospitable communities? Clearly, the foundation to any evangelizing efforts needs to be creating more welcoming parish communities.
Most longtime parishioners will claim that their parish is a warm and welcoming community because THEY feel welcomed there. But what is the experience of newcomers to our churches? The typical experience of newcomers to a parish is to feel like they are invisible, like their presence makes absolutely no different to anyone. Too many greeters welcome only those they know and avert their eyes from strangers. Sometimes visitors feel downright unwelcomed, like when they get a dirty look from someone because they are sitting in “their” pew. And then rarely, all too rarely, newcomers are made to feel welcomed in our churches.
Another reason for ensuring that our churches truly welcome the stranger is the current reality of Catholics displaced by church closings, mergers and clusters. To have one’s church closed is traumatic enough without having that trauma compounded by being made to feel invisible or outright unwelcomed in the new parish. A multitude of good works done by church leadership to heal the pain of a church closure can be undone quickly with one dirty look, for whatever reason, in the new parish.
So what can we do to create more welcoming parish communities? Our pragmatic, action-based culture impels many of us to move immediately into action (more greeters, recognizing newly registered parishioners, coffee after Mass, etc.). But I believe that creating more welcoming communities requires a fundamental transformation of many of our parish communities. This sort of fundamental transformation requires a process, a spiritual process, rather than simply brainstorming a “to do” list.
Furthermore, efforts which are restricted to a small group of dedicated volunteers, such as a hospitality committee, fall far short of the potential that exists in every parish. In the past (and even presently), for most Catholics evangelization was perceived to be the work of a special group within the Church, e.g., those with a special vocation, missionaries or priests. In the new evangelization, however, it is clear that the call is to the entire people of God. In order to maximize any welcoming effort, all parishioners need to be convinced that it is THEIR responsibility to welcome the newcomers, not the pastor, not the greeters, not the hospitality committee, but every parishioner in the pews. Jesus even indicated that our final accounting before God will include, in part, the extent to which we welcomed the stranger (Matt 25:35).
In April, 2008 almost 1,200 priests, deacons, vowed religious and lay ministers took part in a national summit to discuss the findings of the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project. This report identified one of the key marks of excellent parishes is that they are welcoming communities. At the same time, pastoral leaders surveyed by the Emerging Models Project reported that welcoming communities was one of the areas in which they were least successful.
Creating a culture of hospitality in today’s parishes will require extensive catechesis, deliberate planning and careful implementation. Becoming a welcoming parish is a process, not an event. Since the circumstances of each parish is unique, there is no “one size fits all” plan for growing into a welcoming parish.
In 2008 the Diocese of Brooklyn successfully pilot tested a spiritual process for creating more welcoming parishes. Six parishes agreed to be part of this pilot program. Handpicked parish teams were trained in the process, and were sensitized to the importance of welcoming the stranger. Parishes were assessed, through various means, as to their welcoming both before and after implementing the process, so that the effects, if any, of these efforts could be measured.
The spiritual heart of the process is to discern God’s vision for the parish in terms of welcoming the stranger. By attempting to discern God’s vision it raises the vision of individual team members beyond what can easily devolve into a self-centered vision. At the same time that God’s vision is being discerned, a realistic assessment of the current reality of welcoming and hospitality in the parish is conducted.
When we have a sense of God’s vision for parish hospitality and a clear idea of the current reality of welcoming in the parish, then a plan can begin to be assembled that moves the parish from the current reality toward God’s vision. Any good plan will include extensive catechesis and a comprehensive communication plan with the entire parish, helping everyone to understand that welcoming the stranger is every parishioner’s responsibility.
Our parishes will grow and thrive when we practice hospitality. With increased numbers of parishioners our collections will grow and we will have more people available to contribute their time and talent toward parish ministries. More hands make light work. Clearly, it is God’s fervent wish for us to create welcoming parish communities. Wherever hospitality is practiced out of gratitude, the face of a loving, caring, accepting God is made manifest, appealing to those yearning for a faith community that they can call home.
(Richard McCorry is a nationally known presenter, retreat leader and the author of “Dancing with Change, A Spiritual Response to Changes in the Church” (2004), and “Company’s Coming, A Spiritual Process for Creating More Welcoming Parishes” (2008). He created and led the pilot project (mentioned in this article) for welcoming in the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. He travels the country helping parishes and dioceses to develop more welcoming parishes.)
McCorry to speak in Iowa City
On Sunday, Nov. 20, from 1-8 p.m., Richard McCorry will conduct a retreat at St. Patrick Church in Iowa City on the topics of Creating More Welcoming Parish Communities and Spirituality during Times of Change. For more information about the retreat, call Dan Ebener, the Davenport Diocese’s director of stewardship and planning, at (563) 888-4251.