Many parishes take advantage of the Christmas season to promote some version of a `Welcome Home` program for Catholics. Several years ago, our parish was experiencing the classic graying and emptying of the pews. The labourers were few, but so was the harvest. A decrease in numbers was reflected and magnified in a corresponding decrease of energy. A parish can quickly spiral into a depressive apathy and eventually into oblivion. And, oblivion is a real possibility in a time of priest shortages and parish closures. It was time to do something.
Our pastor decided to implement a program to draw Catholics back into the parish, called “We Miss You”. His intentions were sincere but I groaned (sometimes audibly, I’m afraid) as week after week we were reminded that “each of you has family and friends that aren’t here today”. I groaned because of the judgmental undertones that came with the project. Family and friends, who no longer helped us fill the pews and collection plates on a Sunday morning, were portrayed as somehow less than we were. It was assumed that they had lost their faith, that God no longer had a place in their lives. We were the good Catholics, and they weren’t. And, it was our holy duty to bring the fallen back into the fold. What was wrong with this picture?
What was wrong was that the focus of this project (and of our pastor) was on Mass attendance and participation in parish ministry. When a parish is focused exclusively on its liturgical and inner community life, when this is its only raison d’être, then empty pews on a Sunday morning will rightly lead us to question the existence of that parish. Mass attendance becomes the yard-stick to measure our faithfulness as Catholics. And an easily quantifiable measuring tool it is. Sheep are inside! Goats are outside!
But what of the gospel imperatives that Jesus calls us to? What about feeding the hungry, clothing the poor? What about fighting the injustices and inequalities of our world? What about working for peace in a global climate gone mad with protective nationalisms, religious perversions based on skewed readings of sacred texts, and paranoid obsessions with war in the name of self-defense? How do we incarnate Jesus in the middle of this madness, put flesh on the words of his gospel in our own place and time? Week after week, I waited for guidance on the big issues of our life. Week after week, I listened to fear-filled admonitions about the grave nature of Sunday obligations and the sinfulness of those who did not fulfill them.
Before we can be a welcoming community, we must take a critical and honest look at the community itself. What are we inviting people back too? What kind of spiritual, moral, and communal nourishment are we offering? Are we communities of prayer and action? Are we truly living the deep connect between the Eucharist and mission? Or, are we just another parish of Sunday Catholics?
Yes, let’s welcome Catholics home this Christmas. But, let’s make our churches worth coming home to!