Welcoming and accompanying the unchurched

Many of the movements responding to the call for the New Evangelization are realizing the need to reach out to, to welcome and to accompany those on the periphery of the culture. They are beginning to look to parishes to nurture the harvest they are starting to cultivate.

The Archdiocese of Detroit has put together a master plan for transforming parishes into instruments of the New Evangelization. “Unleash the Gospel” has the potential of absolutely revolutionizing the lives of the Catholics of the archdiocese and those they encounter. The result of two years of planning, “Unleash the Gospel” notes, “For evangelization to have its effect we must ensure that our communities extend a warm welcome to everyone who walks through the door. This entails changing the way we envision the parish. It is natural to think of the parish as the place for those who belong; we are less accustomed to seeing it as the place for those who do not yet belong but are taking their first steps on the journey toward God.”

This is a call to move from “maintenance” to “mission,” from simply keeping a parish afloat to transforming the members of a parish into “a joyful band of missionary disciples,” a phrase that originated with Pope Francis in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium and embraced by Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron. Archbishop Vigneron addresses many of the groups that a parish serves. To families he says:

I encourage families who are living the Gospel 
to exercise radical generosity in inviting others 
to share in your family life, even if you are well aware that it is not perfect. For instance, consider engaging in a ministry or ongoing service project as a family, so that others can witness how you relate to one another and how you raise your children. Consider inviting singles, including young people, to attend Mass with your family or to share meals at your home on a regular basis. Consider serving as mentors to newly married couples. When unchurched families — including relatives — come to your home, recognize that even a prayer before meals, or simple words of thanksgiving to God offered by each member of the family, can be a powerful witness to the presence of Christ among you.

The kind of family life that engages in ministry as a family and one that offers warm hospitality and meals is not a small challenge and would in itself be transformative of most parishes.

Yet, “Unleash the Gospel” has an even more ambitious vision:

Every parish should deliberate on how to welcome those who have never come to church, or who have not been there in years, and who may cross the threshold with some trepidation.

If a homeless person shows up at the parish, let us rejoice! If a teenager covered in tattoos 
and piercings walks in, let us be glad! Let us make our parishes places where everyone who attends Mass can also make friends, find mentors, and feel known, loved and supported. This will require the committed involvement 
of many parishioners, especially those who have a charism for hospitality or for accompaniment.

An important part of welcoming the newly evangelized is therefore to ensure that every parish, insofar as possible, has a “shallow end”—an entry-level means of getting one’s feet wet in the journey of faith.

The welcome that is needed is not just a “greeter” at the door (though that can be nice.) My mother was at one time the “welcome wagon” lady for our small town in Pennsylvania. When someone new moved into town she would visit the new family (or person) and introduce them to the community. Merchants gave coupons for discounts but the real benefit was a “newcomers club” which held gatherings where newcomers could forge friendships with others, both those new to the community and long time residents. Parishes should certainly have some such service for those who register but also for those who are simply inquiring.  Every newcomer and guest should be invited to a small prayer group or a bible study group.

Archbishop Vigneron recommends:

So unleashing the Gospel in our local Church means learning how to make unchurched people a priority. To seek them, invite them, welcome them and accompany them on the way of discipleship is the business of every parishioner.

Parishes could have support groups for almost any need: young mothers, single parents, single persons, the widowed, the divorced and caretakers of the ill, demented, and mentally handicapped, etc. Perhaps retired men and women of the parish young enough to have energy to share their skills, and anyone who wants to lend a hand, could simply show up at the parish for Saturday morning mass and afterwards help needy people in the vicinity with lawn mowing, cleaning, laundry, packing for a move, or handy man jobs.

In the Detroit area, a group in special need of radical, ongoing help are single mothers with children who are usually living entirely off welfare with little extended family support and who more or less careen from crisis to crisis. Many immigrants are in a similar fix though some of them have more community support, intact families and had better upbringings. They need lots of mentoring, financial support and crisis management. The phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is now woefully inadequate – I believe it now takes a “metropolis” – or perhaps a graced parish would do – to help certain needy groups in our society.

I wonder if parishes could purchase houses (they can be incredibly inexpensive in Detroit) and equip them to assist such women and immigrants and perhaps a neighbor whose house has burned down and thus provide for some immediate and perhaps long term assistance until those served can “get on their feet.” Some parishioners could help with childcare while the head of the household gets her GRE or takes some classes to enhance employment possibilities, or goes for medical appointments. Shopping and help managing finances and dealing with government organizations can make a huge difference. Certainly families could consider inviting single mothers and their children to holiday celebrations and just fun family outings.

Another of the groups in great need of welcoming and accompanying in our culture are those who experience same sex attraction. A young priest recently told me that he has posted on his parish website resources for people with all sorts of needs and an invitation to contact him about them. The largest numbers of requests he has are from those who experience same sex attraction and those who have children, loved ones and friends who experience same sex attraction.

Courage and Encourage are terrific support groups for such individuals and it is important that every community have such groups available but sometimes people are just not ready for that kind of commitment and conversion. I have heard of priests who several times a year hold office hours on Sundays through the afternoon and evening and simply invite people to come by with whatever questions and concerns they have. The announcement of such should include an invitation to talk about such hot topics as homosexuality, transgenderism, divorce, cohabitation, infertility, joblessness, immigration, mental illness, etc. A priest, obviously, cannot be an expert in all matters but he can listen and refer people to the many already existing services that the Church provides. One hopes he also has names of parishioners who may have undergone the same trials who are able to offer solace to others. I encourage the seminarians I teach to stockpile useful resources of all kinds – books, articles, pamphlets, names of websites and organizations, CDs, DVDs, etc. – and to share such information with each other. They should have a storage closet full of materials to give to those who have questions about difficult matters. What they don’t know, they can offer to try to find.

One evangelizing group that originated in the Detroit area and is branching out throughout the world is St. Paul Street Evangelization. Some of the priests affiliated with that group locate themselves in very public places — such as town squares and malls — and set up to hear confessions while evangelists offer prayers, rosaries, holy medals and pamphlets to passers-by. In some places this has become a regular scheduled event and people know where to go to get guidance and grace.

If the parish becomes a hub of hospitality and ministry, per “Unleash the Gospel,” the transformation will be a benefit to parishioners as well: “The paradox is that when the attention of the whole flock turns outward to seek the lost, the 99 grow exponentially in their own faith and commitment to Christ.” Time for us all to unleash ourselves from all our trivial distractions and get down to the joyful work of building the kingdom.

The vision for parish life in that letter would revolutionize virtually every parish. Am I not sure it goes far enough!

Families who, having embraced their role as the domestic church and in connection with other families and single persons, actively seek the spiritual and social renewal of their neighborhoods, schools and places of work. Such families and individuals would display a strikingly counter-cultural way of living: grounded in prayer, sacraments and attention to Scripture; unusually gracious hospitality; a capacity to include those on the margins of society; and joyful confidence in the providence of God even in difficult and stressful times.

So unleashing the Gospel in our local Church means learning how to make unchurched people a priority. To seek them, invite them, welcome them and accompany them on the way of discipleship is the business of every parishioner. The paradox is that when the attention of the whole flock turns outward to seek the lost, the ninety-nine grow exponentially in their own faith and commitment to Christ.

Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.