Baptisms, marriages, and funerals are significant stages in the life of a Catholic. The Church celebrates and welcomes us as we are reborn into the life of Christ, usually as infants. She is there to bless our spousal union as we begin a new family. And she is there to send us off with hopeful prayer as we enter into eternal life.
Many Catholics who attend mass irregularly, or not at all, still wish to have children baptized, marriages celebrated, and burials with a full funeral liturgy. What is a pastor to do? I’ve seen three different approaches being used.
The first is the rules and obligations approach. If you can`t show an up-to-date membership card, then you can`t expect to waltz in and celebrate the sacraments. The ‘no’ is firm and backed with a recitation of church laws and teachings.
The second approach is a free-for-all. No questions are asked, and no judgments are made. An open-door, welcoming policy allows all to expect the services of the Church without the messiness of uncomfortable conversations or confrontations.
A third approach tries to find a middle road. Yes, you can be baptised or have your marriage blessed in the Church, but you have to show your commitment by attending mass faithfully until then. Attendance will be taken. Funerals are a little trickier. How about a funeral service, but no mass?
This issue is not uniquely Catholic. Friends in Protestant congregations tell me they face the same problem. I don’t know what the right answer is. I suppose that wisdom lies, as it often does, in a balance between a pastoral approach and being faithful to who we are as Catholics. Our churches are not meant to be service stations. Yet, who are we to know the mind and heart of the young couple, parents, or grieving family standing before us? This can be a graced moment for them, an opportunity to be welcomed into the faith community that they drifted from, or perhaps never really knew or understood. The challenge is to make them want to be part of the community once more. A listening ear and some gentle evangelization might open doors of the heart. Closing the doors of the church will probably guarantee that they won’t come knocking again.