Truth and Hospitality

I’ve been working for the Church for about 4 years now.  And, as anyone involved in parish or diocesan life knows, that means I’ve been at my share of meetings.  It seems to me that there are a few themes that show up at most such meetings.  One of the most common in my experience is the question of hospitality.  I suspect that this did not start 4 years ago.  Rather, one imagines decades of visiting and revisiting this question.  The Church, we all agree and insist, must be welcoming.

This is often brought up with reference to decline in Church attendance or even financial donations.  If only, we lament, the people who came through our doors felt welcome when they were here.  People, for example, who only ever show up at the parish for Christmas and Easter, or who only darken the doors of a Church for weddings and funerals, need to feel welcomed when they do show up, or they won’t consider coming back.

Sound familiar?

Now, I don’t want to deny the truth on offer here.  The Christian community does need to be welcoming.  And this is especially true of the outcast, the person who has no other community.  It is especially true, too, of the vulnerable person, the one who, if they do not find a welcoming home in the Church will often find an abusive or manipulative home elsewhere.  But I do want to challenge this narrative somewhat.

Yes, there are stories of people who had a bad experience with a priest or pastoral associate over some, in the grand scheme, trivial matter, walked out the door and never came back.  But here’s the rest of the story we rarely consider: anyone who lets one bad experience with one of the Church’s sinful members (let’s not forget that includes you and me!) needed a better reason to stay than a funeral that went according to their plans and ideas.

I’m afraid that one of the things we do when we repeat ad nauseum that our parishes need to be more welcoming is to disparage the great work that our parishes actually are doing in terms of hospitality.  Most of our parishes and most of our pastors are more than welcoming most of the time.

We have moved several times since we got to Regina 4 years ago, and are now registered in our third parish in this Archdiocese.  At each one, people have gone out of their way to welcome us and to get to know us.  (Older parishioners are often visibly excited to see a family with a bunch of kids show up for Mass.)  Even when we visit other parishes, we are often invited to be part of their community.

I’m not saying that there is nothing our parishes could learn about certain practices of hospitality that would have a practical impact.  Or that a truly Christian sense of hospitality is not essential to being the Church.  What I am saying is that the constant reference to our need to be welcoming is often a straw man.  Worse than that, it is a straw man that allows us to avoid the deeper question we should be asking:  Why should anyone want to be a member of this community?  Or, to put it another way, what are we welcoming people to?

Maybe some of the disconnect here comes from presuming that Christianity is a kind of default, that people would be a part of the Church as long as they didn’t have a good reason not to.  And while this may have been more, if not completely, true at some point in our past, it is most certainly not the case anymore.  For most unchurched people today, there is no reason to go to Church, whether that Church is welcoming or not.

The fundamental issue underlying evangelization today is not hospitality, however important that may be, but truth.

The Gospel claims to be true.  Furthermore, it claims that that truth matters for every person.  Finally, it is not shy about the fact that that truth makes demands on us.

We often shy away from the demands of the Gospel because we worry that those demands will chase people away.  Sometimes our discussions of hospitality even make direct reference to downplaying certain aspects of the Gospel in order to be more welcoming.

What we fail to understand in our zeal for hospitality is that, if the Gospel and its radical promises and radical demands are not what we are about as parishes or as an Archdiocese, we can be as welcoming as a WalMart greeter and people will still walk away.  Move along, folks.  Nothing to see here.

The focus that we often miss in our meetings when we lament how inhospitable we are is that the Gospel transforms lives.  That is what is on offer inside our parishes: a life transformed by an encounter with Christ and his Church.  If we do not learn to tell that story, and to place it at the centre of what we’re doing, the open door we’re holding doesn’t actually lead anywhere.

So, by all means, let us be hospitable.  That is, in fact, one of the demands that the truth of the Gospel places on us.  But let’s not let this distract us from the heart of the matter.  People need a reason to come to Church besides a warm handshake and someone who remembers their name.  They need the Gospel.  If we don’t give them that, no one else will.