How do we make church a welcoming place? There are many strategies: introductions, nametags, friendly ushers, donuts after Mass. And yet the real work of welcoming isn’t something we can delegate to the parish staff. It’s something that has to start with the people in the pews.
People like, say, you and me.
Let me take you back in time, to a noontime Mass at a nearby parish. My husband was sick, so it was just me and the two boys. I missed most of the Liturgy of the Word because I was trying to keep my younger son from narrating his picture books in a loud voice; I missed the homily because of both boys’ sudden urgent need to use the bathroom. We all filed out of the pew, leaving the books scattered on the seats, and joined the line for the restroom.
Once business was concluded, we headed back to the pews. And as we drew closer, my heart sank to find that a man was now sitting in our seats.
There was still room for the three of us to squeeze in, so we did. The man obligingly moved over, but I was still miffed. As if Mass with kids isn’t hard enough already, I thought to myself, now we have hardly any room. And with all these books, isn’t it obvious someone was sitting here? The Mass went on, and so did the pity party in my head.
And though I didn’t vocalize these thoughts, I’m sure they were discernible. My posture, my expression, the waves of disapproval emanating from me: it was probably pretty obvious that I didn’t want that man there.
But after the Mass, I realized I hadn’t been fair. This was not a personal slight; it was simply someone taking a seemingly empty seat so he didn’t have to stand at the back.
And really, what did I know about this man? Perhaps he was a Catholic returning to his faith, attending Mass for the first time in years. If so, would his strongest impression of it be the young mom who was subtly but unmistakably peeved at him for taking a seat he’d thought was empty?
And even if he was a regular parishioner, didn’t I still have a role to play in making him feel welcome? Wasn’t there something I could have done to reflect God’s generosity and love?
Yes, there was, and I hadn’t done it. I resolved to do better next time.
Because here’s what I keep realizing: Mass is not about reserving a space for my own private worship. It’s about sharing a space with others. We go to Mass because even if we don’t know each other, even if we never see each other again, for a brief but powerful hour we recognize that we have a shared identity as children of God.
And though Mass is about encountering Jesus in the Eucharist, we also find Jesus in the families squeezing past us in the pews. We find him in the woman who comes in late and trips over our feet. We even find him in the man who takes our seat when we’re taking our kids to the bathroom, and if we give that person the cold shoulder because he’s keeping us from the Mass experience we want, we’re missing the forest for the trees.
But if we’re genuinely kind to the people around us, if we smile and make eye contact and willingly share our space, we’re edging a little closer to the kind of church we’re capable of being: a church that welcomes everyone, just as Jesus does.
And I like knowing that every Sunday is a new chance to get it right.