Becoming a more Welcoming Church

Becoming a more Welcoming Church
This Thursday, Liza Nahajski and her team are going to re-run the event A Deeper Understanding of Welcome. I’d like to thank her for doing this, as when run previously the event was fully booked and many were unable to join. So this Thursday, we have another opportunity. The topic for consideration is how to reach out to and welcome everyone to life in Jesus Christ and the community of His Church. The topics included hospitality, meeting people where they are, the gift of listening, and the art of accompaniment. We will also hear from parishes sharing what they are doing to welcome those on the margins, the digital audience, those who are isolated and those who are hard to reach.

You can read below the new opening presentation I give this Thursday on ‘Welcome ad intra and ad extra’. I start with the Synod document that we have sent to the Bishops Conference for onward transmission to Rome, and the points raised in it about how we need to be more welcoming and inclusive.

In our recent diocesan consultations as part of the Synod process, a lot of responses focused on how as Catholics we might be more welcoming. A few stated this need explicitly (‘the Catholic church is not as welcoming as other churches’; ‘We could be more welcoming to people on the margins’; We need to try and find ways of being out there, rather than waiting for people to come through the door’). Suggesting solutions, many responses focused on the welcome that parishioners receive when they enter the church for Mass. Over one third of responses mentioned ‘welcomers’ – people who greet parishioners and hand them a Missal and a hymn book. A few stated that the welcoming could be warmer, or that ‘welcomers’ should speak to parishioners after Mass. Some said that welcoming should be the responsibility of all parishioners, not only the Welcome Ministers. One person said: ‘Our informal conversations after Mass should include people we might not know, not just established friendship groups’. There were also some practical ideas, including welcome posters, ‘Name Badge Sunday’ and technology (‘Live-streaming Mass’; ‘Using Multi-media’; ‘screen projection’; ‘social media’). Several stated that the church building should be open during the day. Some respondents suggested that small groups enable people to feel more welcome and involved in their church, sustaining welcome beyond the initial entry into church (‘Have parish groups aimed at specific ages/types, e.g., youth, teenagers, young adults, mothers, men, the elderly … Groups can provide spiritual life, prayer, mutual support, learning, socialising.) Others specified social activities and prayer groups. The need for children and young people to meet together was very frequently mentioned (e.g., ‘Keep FHC/ confirmation candidates involved after the courses have finished’).

I often think that non-Catholic Christians are much better at this than we are. I remember at College visiting a lively Baptist church where they made me feel very welcome. There were attendants in the car park helping you to park. The greeter genuinely wanted to get to know me; he even phoned me in the week to ask if I was coming next Sunday. They also offered amazing hospitality after the Service, with a barbecue brunch.

As Catholics, we are not always as sharp. We don’t always think things through. We don’t think 360 degrees around Welcome. This might amuse you. As a PP, in my parish in Stockport, I remember someone who started coming to Mass. I caught her afterwards and got to know her a little. I asked her if she knew anyone in the parish, to which she said No. Had anyone spoken to her? No, except one person who said: Sorry, would you mind not sitting there. That’s where I usually put my bag!

Another story. I was talking recently to a young woman, a practising Anglican, who said she had attended a Mass a few weeks ago. I asked her how she found it. She said she felt awkward. The greeters were friendly and there was an invitation afterwards to coffee, but in her Anglican church everyone has a book with the Order of Service in it. She felt awkward without a book with the Order of Mass; and so she did not know when to stand, sit or kneel. No-one in this Catholic church was using a book. She said, it felt like being in a club, with members who all knew exactly what to say or do.

I think it is good for all of us, not least for church greeters, ushers, Ministers of Welcome, to reflect on how we greet people and welcome them. We can share our experiences and our good practice.

Welcome is part of what we mean by the word evangelisation, to spread the Good News. Of course, evangelisation is not just about reaching out to others. It begins with ourselves being evangelised, and this is a life-long endeavour, a work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and our lives. Evangelisation is always two-way, like breathing-in and breathing-out. It’s ad intra and ad extra. In other words, it is about ourselves growing deeper in our faith. This involves ongoing intellectual, moral and spiritual conversion. Intellectually, it is about deepening our knowledge of the faith, the Bible and the Catechism. Morally, it’s about a change of life-style, living a good life, imitating Christ by serving and helping others. And spiritually, it’s about growing in holiness, in prayer in union with the Lord, a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. All of this, of course, we do as members of His Body the Church. There is no such thing as a lone disciple, a lone Christian, a solitary soul: we are all incorporated into Christ’s Body, the Church.

So evangelisation is ad intra but, of course, it’s also ad extra. It is about outreach, reaching out to others in mission and in service, that is, offering the Gospel and helping others encounter Jesus Christ within His Body the Church. I always say ‘mission AND service,’ because this mission involves justice and advocacy, charity and service of others, especially the neediest and the poorest, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. It means offering the hand of friendship and a warm welcome into our parish communities. It was wonderful in the Cathedral this Easter with 12 people being baptised or being received into full communion with the Church.

Let me add one further point. Welcome raises the issue of being inclusive. It also raises the issue of accompaniment. It’s about nurturing interpersonal relationships. Accompaniment is a topic Pope Francis often speaks of. In Evangelii Gaudium, he says We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness, without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur. Listening helps us to find the right gesture and word, which shows that we are more than simply bystanders. Only through such respectful and compassionate listening can we enter on the paths of true growth and awaken a yearning for the Christian ideal (171).

So welcome, inclusivity and accompaniment are all about interpersonal relationships. We need to give time to others, be patient with them, find the right way to gain their trust, their openness and their readiness to grow. We also need to recognise the obstacles and also the Cross. Pope Francis again: One who accompanies others has to realise that each person’s situation before God, and their life in grace, are mysteries which no one can fully know from without. The Gospel tells us to correct others and to help them to grow, on the basis of a recognition of the objective evil of their actions (cf. Mt 18:15), but without making judgments about their responsibility and culpability (cf. Mt 7:1; Lk 6:37). Someone good at such accompaniment .. invites others to let themselves be healed, to take up their mat, embrace the cross, leave all behind and go forth ever anew to proclaim the Gospel (172).

What are we welcoming people into? It’s the communion of Christ’s Church. This might be provocative. People often talk about the parish community. But I always say that is not what the Church is about. As Catholics, as Christians, it is not our task to create ‘communities’ but rather to create ‘communions’! Communities are inevitably inward-looking, focused on themselves and on their members. But the Church is focused on creating communions for mission and service, alliances of people who are porous and open to newcomers and where their eyes are not on each other but focused outwards. Our parishes are meant to be outward-looking service-centres, caring for the needy and poor in their locality.

So welcome is part of the Church’s evangelising mission. ‘Welcome’ is an aspect of evangelisation ad intra and ad extra. Welcome is first about you and me welcoming Christ and His Gospel into our lives (ad intra). It is also about you and me sharing Christ and His Gospel with others (ad extra) through our openness, friendship, warmth and hospitality, through listening and charity so that others may cross the threshold of trust. These are some of our topics this evening.

Indeed, what would be my vision for the Diocese? I dream of our Diocese, our parishes and every member of the Church being truly welcoming to everyone, going out to them, including them, accompanying them and helping them enter into a personal-passionate relationship with Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour within His Body the Church.