Christmas is coming, and so are those `Christmas and Easter Catholics`. How dare they show up only on the high holy days? How dare they take up our precious seats? After all, it`s our behinds that warmed up these pews each Sunday. What if I`m forced to move to the back? Or, horror of horrors, have to stand while these imposters sit comfortably, dressed in their holiday best?
Christmas, Easter, baptisms, weddings and funerals are graced moments that need to be embraced by our pastors and parish communities. These are our Feast Days, and celebrations of life’s significant passages. It is not a time for judging or questioning the motives of non-regular church goers. It is a time to rejoice in their presence. It is a time to warmly welcome, without any undue drama. It is a time for “I’m happy to see you”. Not, “It’s been too long since we`ve seen you. Where have you been?” Simple, gracious hospitality will move hearts. Belittling comments and judgmental references won’t. In fact they will turn hearts away even more.
Our adult children are, for the most part, “C and E” Catholics. The fact that they don’t attend Mass regularly has been a source of sadness and guilt for my husband and me. But, it doesn’t surprise us when we ponder the damage that was caused by our own struggles and anger at the Church. Their eyes were opened to the reality of dysfunctional Church leadership at an early age. We had to show them how to separate the wheat of the gospel message from the chaff of hurtful power struggles in the Church.
It was not an easy task. Yet, today we rejoice in the women and men our children have become. They believe in God, and in the power of prayer. They are kind to those who need their kindness, and respectful to those who deserve their respect. They are easily angered by unfairness and aren’t afraid to stand up and fight against injustice. They know how to love, and be loved in return. They are fiercely loyal to family ties, yet are eager to prove their independence. And, they still want to attend our parish Christmas and Easter liturgies as a family. Is it just for emotional reasons, a desire to relive the good old days of their youth? Or maybe it`s just the sense of tradition? Christmas and Easter wouldn’t be the same without going to Church. I don`t spend much time thinking of the reasons. Their presence makes me happy. And, it makes me happy to see their friends return home and join their families in the liturgical celebrations. It is good to look down the pews and see them filled with these young adults. It feels like a family reunion.
One Christmas, in particular, drained all the joy from our celebration of Christ’s Incarnation. We listened to a lengthy homily declaring that the most important place to be in the world is “within the four walls of this church”. Literally! Our pastor at the time, who has a great Eucharistic devotion, was trying to emphasize the Real Presence in the Eucharist but the point was missed completely. All that we heard was another guilt trip for those who did not attend Sunday Mass. It was a classic “C and E” homily. Being inside the Church is good. Being out in the world is bad.
I wondered what my children were thinking. One son was a fire-fighter / paramedic, one daughter a psychiatric emergency nurse, and another daughter a physical therapist in an acquired brain injury unit of a mental health hospital. Each of their jobs required courage and compassion. Is Jesus not as really and truly present when they put their lives at risk to help others? Is Jesus not really and truly present when they work with the poorest of the poor and those with such incredible needs and challenges? The words of the pastor were interpreted – rightly or wrongly – as a personal judgment. These weren’t words to welcome them back. They were words that slammed shut the cautiously opened doors and would continue to keep them away. We hope and pray that their Catholic roots will continue to be nurtured by their good hearts and generous works. And maybe, one day, they will find a welcoming faith community where they can find a spiritual home.
If you are a `C and E` Catholic, please do attend a good Christmas liturgy this season, and leave any guilt feelings behind. Enjoy the beauty of the surroundings, the wonderful scripture readings and the glorious music. Be open to the awesome mystery that is the Incarnation, God becoming one of us. If you are a faithful parish member, God bless you! Turn to the visitor and welcome them warmly. And, if you are a pastor, embrace the graced moment that is given to you at Christmas time. Radiate the joy and hope of the Christmas message in your words and actions, for joy and hope is much needed in our world today.