hatch, match, and dispatch

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.

welcome home?

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!

“c and e” catholics

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.