Thieves. Tax collectors. Prostitutes. Vagrants. Thugs.
Jesus engaged with these people, and many more like them. He listened, comforted and challenged them as, like all of us, imperfect, fallible human beings. Opening his heart to each individual’s experience, he met them where they were.
Derided by some religious leaders at the time, Jesus remained willing to bring His message to everyone, particularly the sinners.
“Dr. Robert Schuller used to say that ‘Church isn’t a museum for saints; it’s a hospital for sinners,’” says Mark Purcell, pastoral associate for Liturgy and Music at Sts. Simon and Jude Catholic Church.
For more than two millennia, this willingness to engage, love and pray for all visitors, particularly those less fortunate, has remained a core tenant of hospitality. “We’re here to provide direction, joy, purpose and community,” Purcell says, adding that no parish can do that without an ever-present, ongoing focus on hospitality.
“Bishop Vann launched the Diocese’s Strategic Plan after our 40th anniversary,” says Sr. Katherine (Kit) Gray, Christ Cathedral’s director of Mission Integration and Ongoing Formation. “His intention is that the Diocese flourish into the future. This plan has a number of key priorities. One of those is evangelization.
“Pope Francis says that evangelization begins with attraction,” Sr. Kit continues. “How do I reach out to you? How do we connect? How do we find something in common? Hospitality is closely connected to evangelization.”
Sts. Simon and Jude serves as a wonderful example of hospitality in action. While adhering to Bishop Vann’s key priorities, the Huntington Beach-based parish emphasizes four of its own: “gospel, Eucharist, stewardship and hospitality,” Purcell says. “And not necessarily in that order.”
The Very Rev. Christopher Smith, Christ Cathedral’s rector and episcopal vicar, says. “What we call our ‘Sunday experience’ is very much based on the hospitality of the community to which the people are coming. Let’s say somebody not in our community arrives, and someone comes up and says, ‘You know, I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Welcome. My name is Father Christopher,’ or whatever his or her name might be. That can really make a difference.”
How can a parish re-emphasize hospitality as a top priority? Purcell notes that it starts with its vision statement. “Other parishes should have [one] that outlines the importance of hospitality at its core. And as a first step, the parish’s ministers need to be taught this, and so do each and every person in the parish. … Every church is His church, and we’re a part of it. It’s always about smiling, always welcoming others.”
“If you look at the heart of the liturgy, you’re talking about gathering people around a table,” says Rev. Daniel Barica, pastor of Sts. Simon and Jude. “We honor that when people first step on the property. We want them to feel welcome, from the parking lot to the end of Mass, and it extends later, when we have them come into our plaza to continue that fellowship.”
Here’s a change parishes can consider: “Announcements are usually done after Communion,” Purcell says. “However, after we greet one another, we share parish news: ministry updates and upcoming events, for example. At this time, we occasionally have a guest speaker who shares for two minutes about a recent event or an earlier experience. For example, we’ve had someone talk about an upcoming men’s retreat.”
The advantage of having announcements before the service, Purcell notes, is that after Mass, visitors tend to think more about leaving the parish and getting on with their day. They may not really pay attention to what’s going on at their parish. The result: Community engagement may be compromised.
To invite parishioners to stick around, “We’ve created a hospitality table outside, with coffee and donuts,” says Rev. Daniel. “People come and ask questions about who we are as a Christian faith community. What an opportunity to meet people where they’re at. That’s hospitality.”
“We also have several kiosks outside that showcase our different ministries and provide information about their activities,” Purcell says. “We recently had a Blessing of the Bikes, followed with hot dogs, chips and lemonade.”
Several times a year, those newly registered are invited to have lunch and tour the parish. Rev. Daniel meets them after the final morning Mass, and a Hospitality Committee serves them lunch. “While they’re eating lunch, we highlight what’s going on with our programs and refer them to our bulletin,” he says. “We send them home with a bottle of wine, to let them know that we’re glad they chose to come and be a part of our community.”
“Christ’s prayer at his last meal with his disciples was that all may be one,” Sr. Kit says. “And essentially that was His mission: to bring all people into a unity with one another and with God. Hospitality is an extension of that. Hospitality is a way to help us become one – with one another and with God.”