by Bill Dodds
You know them even though you don't recognize their names and faces. They're the "C & E Catholics." They block up the parish parking lot. Cram into the church, making it much too warm. And, worst of all, sit in your spot in your pew.
They are those "strangers" who show up out of nowhere for Christmas and Easter and then disappear.
Never mind how you can make them feel welcome, why would you want to? Lorene Hanley Duquin -- director of parish life at St. John the Baptist Parish in Lockport, N.Y., and the author of many books -- has answers to both those questions.
"I can understand where parishioners are coming from," she said. "There's a feeling that 'You're infringing on my territory.'"
On the one hand, there are many parishioners who wish their own family and friends who don't go to Mass would go to Mass. "But then when they're confronted with all these strangers coming back, it's a whole different thing," she added. "If it's my whole clan who's visiting and taking up a whole pew, that's a different thing, too."
Obviously, that's not just OK, that's wonderful! (Never mind that it's your adult sons or daughters who are sitting in other parishioners' regular spots.)
"That's human nature," Duquin continued. "And the thing we have to do is help educate parishioners to see how we treat people when they do show up could be the difference between their coming back to the Church or not coming back to the Church.
"The other thing we tell people is, if everyone were focused on bringing people back, you might not be able to bring back your own family member or friend, but somebody else might be, if we got this thing going as a movement."
A movement called evangelization. Accepting Christ's mandate to "go . . . and make disciples of nations" (Mt 28:19) and realizing that includes inviting family, friends, neighbors and co-workers to the parish and offering a warm reception to all visitors all the time.
"People who have been away from the Church for a long time can have the feeling that people are judging them when they come back," she said. "And I don't think that's necessarily true. It's more that parishioners are ignoring them."
That's why one of the items of Duquin's agenda when she's leading a workshop on this topic is teaching "people in parishes what we call 'the prayer of the loving look.'"
"I get them to imagine that they're filled with God's love and they can 'beam' God's love at other people," she explained. "And I ask them to practice it when they're walking into church, at the sign of peace or other times like that."
What about the fear -- or concern -- of introducing yourself to a "visitor" only to discover, much to your embarrassment, he or she is a longtime, prominent parishioner who usually attends a different Mass than you do?
"I tend to give people the words to use, because people don't always know what to say," Duquin said. "If you see somebody you don't know, just say, 'Hi, I'm Joe Shmoe and I've been a parishioner here for a couple of years, and I don't know if I've ever met you before.' That person might say, 'Yeah, you met me at the barbecue last summer' or something like that. And that's OK. Then you just say, 'Oh, I'm really sorry. I didn't recognize you.'"
What Duquin and others like her are doing for parishioners, Franciscan Sister Louise Alff is offering at a diocesan level for the parishes themselves. As the coordinator for parish evangelization for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, she wrote "When They Come, What Makes Them Stay?" a booklet offering suggestions for Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. The basics, she said, would certainly apply to Christmas, too.
Why do visitors show up on those days?
"Some have a 'tug,'" she said. "They've left the institutional Church, but have never left Catholicism. They come back because they want to reconnect, especially on the special days. Others do it because they're with family and the family goes. Others go to impress their fiancee. Others go because some child is in the Christmas play. Some come back because they're influenced by another person. Or some advertisement. They heard something on the radio or they were listening to Christmas music and it tugs at something in their heart. Who knows how God's message stirs the heart? There are other reasons they come back at other times, but at Christmas -- I think -- it's one of those."
But how does a parish provide that sense of hospitality when there are thousands of families in the parish plus all those visitors? That's the challenge for members of St. Gregory the Great Parish in Williamsville, N.Y., where Father Joseph Gatto is pastor to 5,000 families.
"You have to get your parish to develop a sense of welcome," he said. "Parishes, overall, are very good at self-maintenance, at self-focusing." (There are, for example, programs for those who are grieving, are getting married, are receiving first Communion or are being confirmed.)
"At least here in the East, one of the things we haven't done as well is opening up ourselves to look outward," he continued. "Who's left us? Who's not happy? Who finds life difficult and just doesn't seem to want to come across your threshold?"
A parish, he said, needs a mind-set of welcome.
"Getting people in is the first thing," he went on to say. "The second thing is changing things. People left for a reason. For a number of reasons. They could be angry at the Church; it could be a bad confession; it could be divorce and separation; it could be an orientation question; it could be death, bereavement, cancer; it could be the complexities of life; it could be a variety of things.
"We have to put into place things so that, when people come back, we're willing to talk about those issues. To make sure, for instance, that they're clear on what the Church's position is on divorce and separation. I come from divorce and separation myself, so it's one of my priorities. Divorced people who have never remarried and they think they can't come to Communion. Tons of misperceptions there."
Father Gatto knows it isn't just the regulars in the pews who make a difference, but the priests on the altar, too.
"During this season, when people do come back, as a pastor, you have to be careful. You never critique them. Or say, 'Well, where ya been?' or 'People move over because the C & E Catholics are here this week.' You just celebrate the fact that people are visiting. You just celebrate the fact that your church is full."
Source: Adapted from "When They Come, What Makes Them Stay?"
Bill Dodds and his wife, Monica, are the editors of My Daily Visitor magazine and authors of "Encyclopedia of Mary" (Our Sunday Visitor, $24.95).