By Father Herb Weber | Catholic News Service
Shortly after receiving the assignment to establish a new parish 12 years ago, I gathered groups of new parishioners for backyard meetings. People spoke freely about what they wanted in their parish: youth ministry, programs for young families, outreach to the needy and more.
But the most common request was that the parish be friendly and welcoming to people.
Over the years since that beginning, our parish has supported and developed a ministry of hospitality. This is not the only quality that makes a parish successful, but it is desperately needed.
A woman who later told me that she had wanted to sneak into church, pray and then sneak out, was met at the door by several friendly people. As she sat down, someone nearby smiled and said hello. The liturgy itself was inviting and authentically warm. Her grandson discovered there were cookies after Mass, which led her to stay a bit longer. By the second week, she knew she belonged there.
Many parishes have greeters at the doors. We do, too, but I have found that they function better when they have a deliberate task. So they give out bulletins as people come in. This flies in the face of the receive-a-bulletin-as-you-depart tradition, but people know they are being treated as adults.
Hospitality goes way beyond the greeters. We remind people that everyone has to welcome and make room for others. It starts in the parking lot, where people warmly greet each other. On rainy mornings, the "umbrella brigade" is in action as people are met with someone handing them an umbrella to use as they walk in.
Inside church, people talk to each other as they enter the gathering space. A warm and clean atmosphere is promoted. Basic needs like being able to see and hear have become significant.
Accessibility is one of our goals. It means that people with disabilities of all kinds are not only welcomed but joyfully accepted.
Children are treated as full-fledged parishioners, as we do what we can to assist their parents. At all Masses there is a children's Liturgy of the Word. We have a Sunday morning preschool for kids 3 to 5 years old as well as a nursery with qualified child care workers.
One more comment about hospitality. A man who had gone through a serious personal struggle commented one day after Mass he finally was feeling whole again, thanking me and the parish. When I asked what we had done, he said, "Father, don't you understand? Hospitality is healing." Little did I know how his being accepted by the community had helped him.
In addition to hospitality, a parish that wants to be successful has to address two other aspects in the way Mass is celebrated.
The first of those is preaching. As a homilist myself, I know this is an ongoing challenge.
What all homilists need to know is that people want to hear how the message flowing from the Scriptures intersects with their own experience.
I have learned that the best way to help this happen is to employ visual images as part of a homily. Such images as stories, comparisons, analogies and well-thought-out examples can help all listeners regardless of age or educational background. But these images have to be authentic and not simply something found on the internet.
To make sure my words help create a bridge from the Scripture to modern-day life, I often try out parts of my homily with different groups. Frequently I check with other staff members to evaluate what I am preparing.
Just as the homilist prepares for Sunday, the people of the parish must do so as well. Our parish has small faith groups that meet regularly and read the Scriptures of the subsequent Sunday. Parents are encouraged to read Sunday readings to their children before coming to church.
Through these efforts, as well as insights promoted through our parish website and app, we encourage people to become familiar with the readings before coming to Mass.
Homily preparation is work and needs plenty of time. I work on the homily throughout the week, often writing notes and outlines. Only when I feel ready do I actually write the homily, but by that time I truly know it and am at home with it.
The final element to help people have a rich Mass experience is the music. This cannot be overstated. Because music is an art form, what appeals to one person may not be the preference of another. What all people like, however, is when music is well-done, inviting and allows participation of the assembly.
Our parish is blessed with very good music, much of which is rather contemporary. What is necessary for any church, regardless of music choice, is that it become a high priority and that various resources, including money, be made available to enhance the music program.
Parish life is more than the Sunday Mass experience, but for many, that is precisely where they get to know a church community. Often that experience is where people find what their faith needs to help them in their discipleship of the Lord.
Father Weber is the founding pastor of St. John XXIII Parish in Perrysburg, Ohio.
Parishes: Called to welcome 'as Christ has welcomed you'
By Mike Nelson | Catholic News Service
It may be his first parish leadership assignment after 30 years in Catholic education as a teacher and administrator, but Father Tom Elewaut has needed no instructional manual to determine the most important element of a Christ-centered parish community: welcome.
For the six years he has headed Mission San Buenaventura in Ventura, California, Father Elewaut takes time after each Sunday Mass to greet everyone and anyone, parishioner or not, with a handshake, a smile and a hearty hello.
At every Mass at which he presides, Father Elewaut invites visitors to stand and announce where they are visiting from, to acknowledge their presence with applause from the assembly and to make sure the ushers gift each visitor with a prayer card from the historic mission parish, founded by St. Junipero Serra in 1782.
"It is our privilege and our joy to welcome each of you," he tells them with a smile, "and we hope you will return."
Father Elewaut also makes it a point at liturgies where there are likely to be people who are either not Catholic or non-practicing Catholics -- Christmas and Easter, for example, or funerals and weddings -- to let them know that "you have a home here at the mission, and you are always welcome."
But the genial pastor -- whose parish's weekly collections have nearly doubled over his six years of leadership -- is simply modeling what all Catholics are called to do, as St. Paul told the Romans: "Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God" (15:7).
And throughout the U.S., many Catholic parishes make "welcome" the guidepost in their efforts to evangelize their communities. Nor do they rely on their pastor to set the tone or do the work.
One such parish is Sacred Heart Church in Royersford, Pennsylvania, which three years ago established a welcome ministry at the behest of its parish council.
Each week, a core group of about 20 parishioners opens the doors and greets all Massgoers, parishioners and visitors alike, as they enter the church to attend Sacred Heart's four weekend Masses.
The "welcome ministers" (whose ranks swell at Christmastime) are a representation of all age groups and parish organizations, from Boy Scouts and Catholic Youth Organization sports teams to the "Silver Liners" (those over age 55), from housewives to executives and working professionals.
Welcome ministers are also on hand after Mass to thank people for attending, to provide parish information to those who request it and to offer them hospitality in the downstairs "Fellowship Cafe."
"It's usually nothing fancy, just coffee and doughnuts," smiles Pam Galbraith, welcome ministry director, "but it is an opportunity for everyone, especially newcomers, to get acquainted with one another, to learn more about what we do and who we are."
The response to the welcome ministry, Galbraith adds, has been very favorable.
"People tell us they like our liturgies, our music, our homilies," she says, "but they also like and appreciate that our people are very welcoming. And we do get visitors who are from other parishes, as well as people who are coming back to church after being away for whatever reason. This is an opportunity to evangelize, to let people know that our parish is a place that welcomes everyone."
At the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, the parish on which Sacred Heart modeled its efforts, hospitality teams engage parishioners in every activity from greeting and directing arrivals in the parking lot to guiding guests to seats inside the sanctuary, to assisting with weddings and baptisms.
And, as at Sacred Heart, all are welcome to participate in this ministry.
"It doesn't matter who or how old you are," says Galbraith of Sacred Heart. "All you need to be is enthusiastic, outgoing and happy to welcome people to your spiritual home."
And shouldn't that describe every follower of Christ?
Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.
Where the early Christians gathered
By Joseph F. Kelly | Catholic News Service
When we hear the word "church" we think of the universal community to which we belong or of a physical structure, which can take many different shapes.
But what were the earliest churches actually like?
Somewhat surprisingly, the New Testament does not say. The Gospels show Jesus in a variety of places, including synagogues, although he was not very popular there. Most accounts of his preaching show him outdoors, in plane areas, on hills, by water. The Gospels make it clear that he wanted his message to reach as many people as possible, so he chose outdoor environments.
The same was true of his disciples. The scriptural book, the Acts of the Apostles, shows Peter preaching on the steps of the Temple in Jerusalem or wherever he could find a crowd.
Acts mentions that the apostle Paul rented the hall of Tyrannus so he could preach. There would have been nothing special and certainly nothing Christian about a rented hall, but it met Paul's immediate needs.
But obviously the Christians needed more permanent places of their own. Here we have more information. When the apostle Peter escapes from prison in Jerusalem, he goes to the home of the mother of John Mark where the local community has met to pray. Since they are praying as a group, this was a liturgical event.
When Peter gets to the door of this woman's house, the first person he meets is a servant woman -- in those days, a slave -- which means that this is the house of a wealthy person, indicating that it could hold a number of people for a liturgy.
A final piece of evidence occurs in the apostle Paul's Letter to Philemon, in which he greets the church that meets in Philemon's house.
There is evidence that the person who owned the house often presided at the liturgies and meetings, but that is not conclusive.
So when did the Christians actually get church buildings, built for the purpose of worship?
Not until the middle of the third century -- no later than 260 -- and the first building is in what is now Iraq.
If it sounds surprising that it took so long for the first church building to be constructed, we must consider several factors.
First, most of the early Christians, including Paul himself, expected the imminent end of the world. More than that, most expected to be alive when it happened.
Second, the emperor Nero persecuted the Roman Christians in the year 64. That did not lead to empirewide, continuous persecution for three centuries, but it did make the Christians wary about putting up any kind of permanent structure and certainly not large or imposing ones.
The real church construction occurred in the fourth century when the Roman emperors had converted to Christianity. They provided not only permission to build but also donated funds. Several of these imperially inspired churches are still standing in the city of Rome.
But the generation that knew Jesus never saw a church building.
Joseph F. Kelly is retired professor at John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Churches must be "personal, providing fellowship and consistent member care," according to Father Michael White and Tom Corcoran, authors of the book "Rebuilt," which details the transformation of the once-struggling Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, to a thriving faith-filled community.
Small groups are one way to meet the need for friendship, support and conversion. "Rebuilt" offers tips for cultivating small groups:
-- Keep the groups small. Between six and 10 people allow for a "healthy group culture" where participants can feel free to participant or just listen without worrying about speaking too little or too much.
-- Leave the format simple. Allow some time for socialization and refreshments, followed by a short opening prayer. Leading questions can start the discussion -- a "sharing from the heart" rather than an "intellectual exchange." After about 90 minutes, close with a prayer.
-- Focus on life-change, not content. "We don't push Bible study, or any kind of study, per se" say Father White and Corcoran, "because when people start focusing on content, they can easily stop sharing themselves."[[In-content Ad]]