A few years ago my family and I went to a parish out of state. We couldn’t figure out where to park, got there as everything was starting, snuck in the back and watched the family in front of us for clues on how this parish “did” Mass only to find out that it was also their first time at the parish. The announcements invited us to a pancake breakfast. We got lost trying to find it and finally a friendly catechist recognized our uncertainty and directed us where to go. In that experience I remember seeing firsthand how important it is for parishes to be welcoming.
This example isn’t as far from our current reality as it may seem. We have people who are uncertain of how things are right now—because they have been away from in-person Mass since the start of the pandemic or even because of changing safety guidelines. God is still drawing people to our parishes whether they are returning after a short time, a long period or coming for the first time ever. We may have people who have not returned yet but still long to be included, acknowledged and known. The responsibility to help address these needs belongs to each of us. We cannot assume this falls solely on our parish staff and designated greeters: “To seek them, invite them, welcome them and accompany them on the way of discipleship is the business of every parishioner.”
Since we cannot do what we may normally do to welcome people, we may feel discouraged from any welcoming gestures, however the particular circumstances we’re in don’t make them any less important. Welcoming is still essential, we just need to get creative in our approach.
The easiest place to start is to think about what it would be like for someone coming to your parish for the first time or after some time away. Imagine deciding to go back to Mass for the first time and no one acknowledges you or the only looks you get make you feel like people don’t care that you are there. That doesn’t radiate joy! Now imagine that as you glance around, people look to you with a smile in their eyes. Your family is greeted with a head nod or a wave. Someone seated near you thanks you for coming and invites you back next week. All these actions can make someone not only feel welcomed, but valued and included. Which would be the experience at your parish? How can you extend a welcome in these unique times?
Some are not able to attend Mass in person yet but are participating in Masses online. Check in on them regularly. Ask if they need anything and have them share any prayer requests. If you watch the livestream Mass, consider leaving a message in the chat welcoming anyone new and offering to connect if anyone has questions. Your comments alone could make someone feel welcomed or discouraged to attend Mass.
There are those who may not be connected to livestream Masses and are unsure when they will be back. Extend a welcome to them so that they know they matter and that the door is open for them when they are ready. This could be on a phone call, via social media or seeing them at the grocery store. As we build connections we need to strive to understand where they are at and encourage where we can. It doesn’t need to be a direct invitation to Mass, your encouragement can be a reflection of what your parish is like and will stick with them when they are thinking about returning.
The Holy Spirit can also inspire you with other ideas. You may decide to finally talk to that person who sits in the same place every week. Your family may create decorative signs to welcome people to the parish. Consider inviting someone to Mass, an online formation activity or to be part of your small group. While listening to the announcements or reading the bulletin can be informative, a personal invitation from someone who will be there can be a deciding factor for someone to attend—virtually or in person.
Unleash the Gospel reminds us: “For evangelization to have its effect we must ensure that our communities extend a warm welcome to everyone who walks through the door.” Let us welcome those who enter our door in new and loving ways, striving to see Christ in each and every one of them.