We move around a lot. Academics are sort of like military families in that way. Since our marriage began in 2008, my husband and I have attended six Catholic churches. Six times we have pushed ourselves into a community—often tightly knit—that didn’t always have room for us. Of those six church communities, exactly two of them regularly offered coffee and doughnuts after Mass. I am certain of this number. My son, who judges a church on its willingness to extend him the courtesy of a post-Mass doughnut, is sure of this number.
While my experience is not exhaustive enough to qualify as a full social experiment, I can tell you that the two churches that had a parish coffee hour were all around more welcoming. The parishioners at these churches recognized us as newcomers and said hello. They asked us questions. They introduced their children to our children. The fact that their churches had institutionalized fellowship in the form of post-Mass coffee made it possible for the parishioners to actually have fellowship.
A lack of fellowship in the church is a problem. Catholics go to church to experience Christ in the Eucharist. And we haven’t always done a good job at connecting that experience to fellowship and community outside of our liturgical celebrations. But parish coffee hour respects Christ on the altar by allowing us to be Christ to one another.
I realize parish coffee hour is not always successful. For every new family who has felt welcomed by the opportunities for social engagement at post-Mass coffee, there are those families who sit awkwardly at a table, shuffling napkins and anxiously awaiting an ideal opportunity to hightail it out of there. And for every kid who pulls on his parent’s sleeve at the end of Mass, begging to stay for a doughnut, there is a parent who cannot wait to be back in the comfort of her own home.
Part of the problem is what Sunday means to us. We go to Mass in the morning with the assurance that when we get home, we can slide into our lounge pants and do what lounge pants do best—lounge. A bag of potato chips, a couple beers, and a football game might be part of the equation. It is a day that promises ease and comfort.
Let’s admit it. Hanging out in our Sunday best—in sometimes questionable-smelling church halls—and chatting with that guy whose name we can’t exactly remember is not really what we’d call a good time.
But it could be. It could be a great time, but only if we all collectively commit to it. We all need to give up an hour of lounge time to build a social community within our church, and the parish coffee hour is the ideal time to do so. Sure, it might be awkward at first, but that guy whose name you can’t remember might just become the guy you shoot hoops with on Thursdays.
And that family who sheepishly looks in your direction across crumpled napkins just might love playing board games as much as your family does and may want to start a monthly game night.
And those newcomers—I’m telling you as a frequent newcomer—they could really use a friend. They could really use someone to tell them what school in their area is the best or which grocery store carries the best meats and cheeses or which priest gives the longest homilies.
The parish coffee hour is an opportunity to be the face of the church in a way that asks very little of us but gives so much back. The Catholic Church is not just what happens in Rome, on the altar, or in the classroom of the attached Catholic school. At its center, the church is the Eucharist. We are also the church for each other, and we need more than just a handshake at the sign of peace to be that.
We need to hang out. We need to have coffee. In order to be Christ to you, I have to actually spend time with you. The great thing about parish coffee hour is I don’t even have to clean my living room to have you over. I don’t have to remember to buy coffee filters or hazelnut creamer. The parish, in its infinite wisdom and generosity, has all that covered. Literally, all we have to do is not leave the building after the recessional hymn. We just need to move like blessed sheep together toward the coffee and doughnuts, and we have to fellowship with each other in all of our mutual discomfort.
I know what I’m suggesting is not easy, but of the things God calls us to do, surely drinking free hot coffee next to someone who probably shares many of our values is one of our lesser crosses to bear.
As small of a cross as it is, many of us—myself included—still don’t always go to parish coffee hour, and the accommodations are a main reason why. If parishioners are asked to leave the church, trudge across the parking lot, and walk down the stairs of the accompanying school to drink coffee and eat doughnuts in a cafeteria, they are less likely to join in. If coffee and doughnuts is a standing-only situation in the vestibule of the church, giving Mass-goers the opportunity to grab a doughnut and run, they are also less likely to join in.
At my parish, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Fort Wayne, Indiana, we are lucky enough to have an ideal social area, conveniently adjacent to the vestibule, with doors that prevent our chitchat from spilling out into the sanctuary. Our parish is full of kind, warm people, but even with easy accommodations and a welcoming community, we still don’t always participate in the parish coffee hour.
The reason is no more profound than we just aren’t in the habit of it, which is ironic since our faith is all about good habits. As Catholics, we teach our children to attend weekly Mass and accept the mysteries of the faith well before they can fully participate in them. We teach genuflection before the tabernacle and the baptismal font. We teach them to trace a cross with their thumb over their forehead, lips, and heart before hearing the gospel. We do all of this to instill habits of church practice they can rely on as they get older. Sadly, we are missing out on giving them a habit of fellowship, one that is already easy for them.
At your next parish coffee hour, watch a kid, any kid. After an hour of trying to sit quietly through Mass and pay attention to things they don’t always understand, all that kid wants to do is rush out, jockey in line to ensure they get a sprinkled doughnut, and chat with whomever will listen to them. That kid wants to run around the vestibule and play tag with anyone who is game because kids are absolute naturals at fellowship. They just get it. They get the importance of being with and enjoying other people, of letting their hair down with each other and sharing some caffeine and sugar.
Maybe it’s time we did, too. Part of understanding the Eucharist as the center of our faith means making space for each other. We need each other. I need to be Christ to you, and you need to be Christ to me. I know it’s not easy.
Let’s start with a cup of coffee.
This article also appears in the November 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 11, pages 25–29)