It can be lonely living by oneself in a small town, as I do. But I can always go to Wal-Mart and know that I will be met at the door by a smiling employee who will greet me with “Welcome to Wal-Mart” and give me a shopping cart and a flier with today’s specials. If only I could be so lucky at church! How many times have I gone to Sunday Mass and opened the church door to find myself in a dark vestibule, greeted only by lost gloves, mismatched galoshes and a stack of collection baskets.
Thanks be to God, this is no longer the case in most Catholic parishes. Today we are greeted at the door by ministers of hospitality, who welcome us into the Eucharistic assembly. But it was not too many years ago when, if you found yourself greeted at the church door by a minister of hospitality, you knew you were in a Protestant church.
The minister of hospitality (or greeter) is a relatively new role for Catholics. Pre-Vatican II editions of the Roman Missal contain no mention of lay greeters. The words hospitality and greeter are not found in the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.” The General Instruction of the Roman Missal lists among the liturgical ministers “those who, in some places, meet the faithful at the church entrance, lead them to appropriate places, and direct processions,” but no name is given to this ministry, nor is it described in any further detail. The current edition of the General Instruction mentions this ministry at the very end of the list of liturgical ministries, following “those who take up the collection in church.”
The Introduction to the Order of Mass, published last year by the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy as a pastoral resource to aid in the implementation of the General Instruction, quotes St. Paul’s instruction to the Romans to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom 15:7). It then assigns to the ushers the task of “welcoming people at the door, providing them with all necessary books and aids, and helping them find their places.”
Those entrusted with the task of preparing Catholics to exercise the various ministries at Sunday Eucharist might argue that greeters and ushers are distinct ministries. Or perhaps those who have traditionally served as ushers—taking up the collection and counting the money—need additional formation to serve as ministers of hospitality.
How does one prepare for this ministry? Can hospitality be learned? Does one take a course for greeters at Wal-Mart? Obviously, there are certain facts and skills that can be easily learned: when to arrive, what to do if someone becomes ill, where the bulletins are kept and the like.
It is more difficult to develop a sense of this ministry. All the various liturgical ministers must work together for a common goal. One minister does not seat people while another minister is proclaiming the Scriptures. Assisting with the Communion procession is different from simply directing traffic.
More difficult yet is teaching the deeper issues: Why are we doing this in the first place? What purpose does welcoming serve? Why do we feel we need this ministry now, when we got by for so many years without it?
Perhaps one reason Catholics did not feel the need to welcome people coming to Sunday Mass was that we had been taught we “had to go.” Inviting Catholics to Sunday Mass was simply unnecessary—like the U.S. Government “inviting” you to pay income tax; you do it or else! For some, obligation may still be the primary motivation for attending Mass. After publishing an article on “Why I Go to Mass,” I received a letter informing me that “the reasons given in the article are all right, I guess; but you didn’t mention the main reason we go to Mass. We’ll rot in hell if we don’t!”
Today we have to do more than threaten; we have to invite and welcome. The U.S. bishops, in their Message to Young Adults in 1995, state: “We acknowledge the pain many of you speak of in feeling unwelcome and alone—strangers in the house of God.” The bishops apologize for past failures to extend hospitality and express their hope that in the future, “anyone who enters a Catholic church for Mass, or at any other time, will feel comfortable and welcome.”
Welcoming and hospitality become important whenever we need to do something together. But Mass was something we once did alone. Only recently have we come to understand the Eucharist as a communal act. During my high school and college years, I went to Mass “to pray.” I said my prayers and the priest said his. I was “talking to God” about my life and my concerns; the priest was “saying Mass.” I prayed quietly in English; the priest prayed in Latin. If there were other people in church at the same time—five or 500—they did not concern me; they said their prayers and I said mine.
I believe this is still the experience of many Catholics. The Mass is not yet perceived to be something that we do together. A few years ago, during the question period following a presentation I gave on the “new” liturgy, a gentleman asked me: “Father, why do I have to turn and shake hands and give that ‘kiss of peace’ before Holy Communion? It’s a terrible distraction. I don’t know those people. And the ones I know, I don’t even like.”
It has been 40 years since the Second Vatican Council wrote: “Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations of the Church...liturgical services pertain to the whole body of the Church” (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” No. 26). This was a revolutionary insight. It changes everything. Mass is not a private devotion. We, as church, are doing something together. And the priest is not doing “his thing” up front, far away; he is presiding, coordinating and leading the community.
Changing people’s understanding of Mass from a private prayer to a communal act is made more difficult by the fact that as Americans we tend to think of “religion” as something private and individual. Charles Lippy, in his study of popular religiosity in the United States, Being Religious American Style (1994), concludes: “Being religious, American style, is to share in that dynamic, but highly personal and ultimately very private enterprise of endowing one’s own life with meaning.” Sunday Mass, for many Catholics, continues to be a “highly personal and ultimately very private enterprise.” This makes hospitality and welcoming both more difficult and all the more necessary.
What can we do to show that the Eucharist is a communal activity? Greeting people at the door is a start. It alerts us to the fact that we are going to do something with others. “Welcome” implies “I am happy that you have come.” The first impression a visitor receives is extremely important. But hospitality is everybody’s ministry. We practice hospitality in choosing where we sit. Do we take the aisle seat and block access to the rest of the pew or chairs? Are those who come after us forced to crawl over us to find a place? What does it say to latecomers when the only open places are way up front? And how do we acknowledge the presence of those who come in and sit next to us? Hospitality is not restricted to the ministers at the church door.
It is also helpful if we think of the first part of the Mass as “gathering rites” rather than “introductory rites” or “entrance rites,” because “gathering” names the purpose of these actions and prayers: “to ensure that the faithful who come together as one establish communion” (G.I.R.M., 46). We exercise the ministry of hospitality when we pick up the service book and sing the gathering hymn. If we are actually doing something together, we should look like it.
We also practice hospitality when we open our minds and hearts to the proclamation of the Scriptures. When we listen to the psalm refrain and repeat it back as best we can, even if the melody is new, we are honing our listening skills and training our ears to hear the word of God. And this word, received in the Holy Spirit, broadens our understanding of whom we must welcome into our parish assembly. The U.S. bishops’ document Built of Living Stones (2001) underlines this idea: “The Gospel requires that particular care be taken to welcome into the Church’s assembly those often discarded by society—the socially and economically marginalized, the elderly, the sick, those with disabilities, and those with special needs” (No. 42). The General Intercessions expand the horizons of our prayer. Understanding the Eucharist as sharing a meal together rather than “receiving Holy Communion” lies at the heart of this communal understanding of the Mass.
Those parishes where the liturgical assembly is a real community must take special care to welcome visitors. A stranger should be able to enter a church and feel perfectly at home. But when you enter a gathering that has a real feeling of community, you may feel out of place unless you are welcomed. I have lived in parishes where we had to be continually reminded to welcome visitors, lest they get the impression that we were some sort of “clique.” The feeling of community was that palpable.
I have found some Catholics who think this whole “welcoming” business is destroying our traditional sense of reverence and replacing it with some folksy, feel-good experience. This is a false conclusion. If you wish to invite a guest into your home, you must have space. You have to “make room.” To invite others into our hearts and our worship, we must make room for them. The enemy of reverence is not hospitality but arrogance. If we wish to worship in an atmosphere of reverence, we must rid our churches, our congregations and our hearts of any superfluous self-importance, pride and ambition that might be filling up our “guest spaces.” We must empty ourselves in order to make room for the other to enter in. This is the difficult part of hospitality.
Arrogance and all that goes with it need to be “sacrificed” at the Eucharist. When we are weighed down with pride and self-importance, it is difficult to mount the cross with Jesus, who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). Emptying ourselves of arrogance is the key to experiencing reverence. At a recent meeting of the North American Academy of Liturgy, the study group of which Iwas a member visited a parish in Harlem for Sunday Eucharist. After Mass a group of parishioners met with us to discuss our experience. One of our group asked the parishioners, “When do you have your deepest experience of prayer? Where in the liturgy do you experience God?” Without hesitation, several of the parishioners replied: “In the welcoming community.” Hospitality is a doorway to transcendence.
The ministry of hospitality that we exercise at the Eucharist is not simply a sales device. It must be the liturgical enactment of the hospitality that permeates our daily living. Hospitality is not an add-on; for the Christian, it is the bottom line: “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me’” (Mt 25:34-35).