A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the daily running of the typical parish was a fairly straightforward and Spartan process.
OK, lest I be thought an ossified curmudgeon, let me clarify that statement with some (albeit heavily abridged) church history: Almost as soon as the Holy Spirit propelled the church into the neighborhood, the organizational instincts of its members sprang into play.
Prayer and the breaking of the bread were central of course. But there were also orphans and widows to care for, food distribution to coordinate, and the dead to bury. Priests, recognizing that they couldn’t neglect their main task, the church’s sacramental life, and couldn’t do it all, wisely tapped deacons (and probably deaconesses) and members of the minor orders for these tasks. Initially the young Christian community organized around basic needs. Something like an Amish barn raising, it was a matter of let’s all just pitch in and do what needs doing.
Father “said Mass” and offered the sacraments. “The sisters” ran the parish school and with some generous helpers taught weekly religious education classes for the kids in public school. “Altar boys” served at Mass, benediction, and parish devotions. A few groups of dedicated parishioners, fraternal organizations, and volunteers ran the fundraisers like the parish picnic; the ladies of the altar and rosary societies and similar groups cleaned and decorated the church, washed and ironed the altar linens, and sang in the choir.
This was, for all intents and purposes, the template of U.S. parish life.
Fast forward to the mid-20th-century arrival of the Second Vatican Council.
With Vatican II came renewed liturgy, among other pivotal directives and documents, its clarion call for “full, conscious, and active participation by all the people.” Energized and urged to live out their baptism, laypeople were now invited to proclaim the scriptures, to distribute holy communion at Mass and to the sick, to serve on newly established parish and pastoral councils, to become certified catechists. Formerly volunteer organists and choir members were now formally trained to be parish music directors. Pastors were encouraged to utilize the skills of lay professionals and hired parish business managers and facilities administrators and religious education directors.
Suddenly, we had ministries. Lots of ministries. Like St. Luke’s “pressed down, shaken together, and running over” (6:38), ministries poured into Catholic life. It was a good thing. Ministries brought organization and enthusiasm. They energized laypeople to claim their rightful place and service in the church.
But I can’t help but wonder if in our zeal to create ministries we might have gone a little overboard. We’ve developed a penchant for giving ourselves fancy titles and official-looking name tags. We’ve designated specific people to be in charge of the simplest church tasks. (I’m waiting for Minister of the Hand Sanitizers to be next.) And in the process we might have lost sight of the reality that all of us—with titles or on committees or not—are called to be church together, to be Christ for one another.
Greeters, or ministers of hospitality as some are called, are a case in point.
They can be a welcoming, helpful presence. Or just a traffic-gnarling knot in the narthex that Mass-goers need to navigate around while the “greeters” for the most part greet and chat with their friends, ushers, or choir members.
I’ve been in parishes and faith communities where the ministry of hospitality is marvelous. I’ve been in others where it seems the focus is only on greeting the folks one already knows and associates with—the cheery “Good morning! Great to see you! How are the grandkids?” to the long-term parishioner but a wordless glance at the unknown newcomer.
As a Catholic journalist at several diocesan and national publications for over 30 years, I’ve been privileged to visit hundreds of parishes—central city, rural, suburban, serving established populations of Italians and Poles and Irish as well as younger communities of Hispanic, Korean, and Vietnamese Catholics. I’ve also been warmly welcomed at Eastern churches, mosques, and synagogues. Whether in Tennessee or Tunisia, each local faith community has its own unique flavor and style.
Those I found most welcoming have the art of hospitality down to a T, and it is clearly a community affair. True, perhaps someone at the door—a greeter—welcomed me. But extending that welcome and offering real hospitality was clearly everyone’s job.
Some smiling person, whether a senior member or a young adult, would offer the worship aid or hymnal and help the visitor locate the sanctuary/worship space and find a seat. Women (we’re really good at this part!) would point out the restrooms or cry room/nursery. And, while it’s still rare in many Catholic churches, some attentive parishioner would show newcomers the coat rack in the entranceway where they could deposit jackets and hats and scarves until after the liturgy. (What better practical sign of welcome than, “Please, let me have your coat; make yourself at home!”)
In a truly hospitable community where everyone plays a role in welcoming guests, even language is not a barrier. In fact, monastic communities, where silence is a central part of the life, are experts at hospitality, with the monks and nuns offering a smile or silent nod to the guests who join them for prayer or fellowship.
The beauty of true, effective hospitality is that it fits every personality type. If you’re an extrovert, go ahead and greet the guests out loud; humor is a great icebreaker (in small doses). If you’re more comfortable in a quiet corner, St. Thérèse’s practice of giving a warm smile works wonders for everyone, even the most dour. For some parishioners and visitors, especially those who live alone and the elderly, that smile can be as treasured—and perhaps even as graced—as the eucharistic liturgy itself.
One of my favorite examples of hospitality happened in a Trappist abbey. As I sat in their church to join the community for morning prayer, an elderly monk pushing a rollator glided silently up to my chair and handed me a folder with the day’s psalms. Then, having somehow heard that I’m a “Nort’side” Chicagoan, he whispered, “Go Cubs!” as he moved on to his choir stall. A light-hearted, brief, but perfect welcome.
I’m not dissing greeters. They’re often an important part of the welcoming process. But they’re only the beginning. To be genuinely hospitable, parishes don’t need name tags or assigned greeters or even hospitality committees. It just takes each one of us to cultivate an open, welcoming presence, see what’s needed, and reach out with a smile to the guest or newcomer in our pews (often the back pews).
Hospitality to the stranger is praised in all the great religious traditions. It’s a central virtue in the Torah, the Bible, and the Quran.
Welcoming hospitality offers us the challenge of living out a central aspect of St. Benedict’s ever-practical Rule that echoes the gospel so powerfully: “Let all guests be received as Christ.”
That’s a tall order for sure. But it doesn’t require formal training or certification. It just needs each one of us, with a welcoming heart, to make it happen.
This article also appears in the April 2019 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 84, No. 4, pages 29–33).
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