What's it like when you walk into your local church? Are you greeted with a friendly smile, welcomed with an enthusiastic handshake? Or perhaps it's like no man's land, don't try and snag the 4th row centre left pew (it's been reserved for the last 20 years) or you won't be welcome ever again?
Hospitality. It's a simple thing, really doesn't cost much at all, except our own time, attitude and initiative to welcome those who join us day to day and week to week in our parishes. In my work, I have the privilege of getting the opportunity to visit many different churches in my travels. I can usually tell within about 30 seconds whether hospitality has been a priority or not. Here's a news flash – it's important!
The Archdiocese of Toronto's pastoral plan invites us to "make our 225 parishes places of welcome and hospitality, both for those who are with us each week and those who return home after many years." It's a pretty logical connection – people who enjoy being around one another are more likely to come back, get involved and tell others about their positive experience.
Consider that the person you welcome to your parish may be coming back to the church for the first time in decades, they may be new to your community and trying to find a local place of worship to call home or perhaps it's a young family juggling the hectic life of raising three young kids and searching for a "family friendly" parish that won't look down on them in case little Johnny continues to cry during Eucharistic Prayer #1.
We have incredible examples of parishes that excel in the ministry of hospitality with smiling faces greeting you at the entrance of the church, babysitting services during Mass for parents in need of a break and spiritual renewal, Coffee Sunday, Pot Luck suppers, to name just a few.
People arrive early, they reconnect, help prepare the church for Mass, rehearse with the Choir, altar serve or usher. Of course we all need some quiet time to prepare spiritually for the sacrament before Mass begins. After Mass, parishioners linger, greet one another, lining up to say hello to the pastor and check in to see how his week went, to help the elderly parishioner with her walker, to welcome the newcomer. That kind of outreach is contagious.
Then when we celebrate the sacraments together each week, there is unity among the people, a sense that we truly are a community of faith accompanying one another on the journey.
And the onus isn't on everyone else, it's on each one of us. Help strengthen your hospitality ministry or volunteer to assist in creating one. Give the gift of time and arrive a few minutes early to church next week. Say hello to someone new, offer a kind word to Mary, who's dressed in her best for Mass, ask a little one how the school year has been. And don't dash after Mass. Stay a few minutes and greet those around you, check in with the pastor, thank the choir or lectors for a job well done.
Come early, stay late. It's an investment of time that will yield a healthy return for both you and your parish, week after week.
Neil MacCarthy is the Archdiocese of Toronto's Director of Public Relations & Communications