Can I see a show of hands, please, if you’re a member of this parish? (I promise I won’t embarrass you.) Of those who raised their hands, keep your hand up if you’ve been a member of this parish for over a year. Keep you hand up if you’ve been a member here for at least 5 years… 10… 20… 30…
Now put your hand up if you’re involved in some way in this parish, in some ministry or help out in some way.
Could I ask you to put up your hand if you’re a visitor, please? Welcome! It’s good to have you here. Thanks for coming! You’re always welcome back.
For those who are parishioners here, I wonder if you feel welcomed here. Is this your home, do you feel like you belong here? I bring it up because some people have left the Church because they never felt welcomed or like they belonged. I remember hearing a story of a woman in New York who said no one ever greeted her at Mass, and she had no contact with anyone. When she joined a Protestant church, the people were warm and loving.
I don’t think it’s a good reason to leave the Church, but it is a reason, and one I understand. I hope that people join and stay in the Church because of more substantial reasons. But if we’re not there yet, we’ll leave because of this kind of reason.
I myself once felt this way. As many people know, I wasn’t raised Catholic, so the first time I started going to Mass when I was thirteen, I remember feeling like an outsider. I didn’t know anyone and it seemed like everyone else was saying ‘Hi’ to everyone else. So, from a human point of view, which was all I knew at the time, Mass wasn’t a very friendly place.
Today, Jesus gives us a powerful command: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (Jn 20:20). Jesus’ mission becomes our mission: a mission to lead people to God, to love them, share the truth with them, and to give them life to the full! This is the mission of St. Anthony’s: we come here to love and worship God, and, because we love Him, we have to love those made in His image.
Remember that homily I mentioned a few weeks ago, about how much God loves us, and is searching for us? Remember how He never gave up on William who was dying in the hospital? If Jesus goes looking for everyone, we have to go looking for everyone.
Now let’s put this into practice, starting with the simplest and the most human kind of love, but the one that will take the longest time to change: and that’s greeting people here at Mass. Jesus’s mission, our mission, starts with welcoming people. If we don’t welcome people, we can’t help them in any other way because they won’t be open to us.
The dominant culture in most of our parishes in Vancouver, which is what I’m familiar with, is that we come to Mass, greet the people we know, and then leave. But that’s not right and not Christian. None of us does it intentionally to hurt other people. So why do we do this? Some possible reasons are:
- this is what we’ve always done and it’s comfortable
- we never knew we were supposed to greet other people
- we’re just not interested
- we didn’t think we could make a difference
- we’re too tired to greet people
- we’re in a rush
- we’re jerks (just kidding)
- some people don’t want to be greeted
- we’re having a hard day
- we’re praying.
The fact that we’ve always done this doesn’t mean it’s good. But now we know we’re supposed to greet others. It’s true: sometimes we’re tired and in a rush or having a hard day. When that happens to me, I just try my best and tell people, “I’m tired.” I communicate with my body language that I care about them but I’m not able to talk—by doing this, I show them love while also taking legitimate care of myself.
I also try to respect the silence of the church. People need to have quiet, so I won’t talk in the church. And when I’m praying, I have to focus on God—that’s where I get my strength from, to serve you. So, when I’m in the church, I smile or whisper or invite people to talk outside.
So what is Jesus asking us to do? He’s not saying we have to have a conversation with everyone or give everyone a hug. How about saying ‘Hi,’ smiling at each other, taking an interest in other people, getting to know other people’s names? Just say, “Good morning. How are you?” Talk about how bad the homily is—it’s a good conversation starter. Be kind to the people sitting next to you in the pew by smiling, making room for them, showing etiquette, which is an expression of love.
Some pastors/priests ask everyone to turn and greet each other at the beginning of Mass. This would probably make some people uncomfortable and be very entertaining for me. But I’m not sure if that changes much. Because real change come when I personally decide I’m going to become more welcoming, and when you personally decide that you’re going to become more welcoming. Just be natural. Don’t force it. Opportunities will come.
I asked at the beginning who’s a parishioner and who’s not, how long we’ve been here, and if we’re involved, because those of us who are involved in a ministry, and who have been here for a long time have a more serious obligation to welcome people. Why? Because this is our home and we should be good hosts. And the greatest burden falls upon me, because I’m the spiritual father.
Let me tell you: I love greeting people because I love people, and I love you. In particular, I try to learn people’s names. How many people’s names do I know now? I went through a list and started counting, and stopped counting after 200 people. There are over 850 people here every weekend, and then more in the school who aren’t Catholic or don’t go to the parish, so, over 9 months, I think I’m doing pretty well. I try to learn about three names every weekend. Any more would be unrealistic.
Now sometimes people get mad at me for not remembering their names. I’m sorry if I’ve hurt people. Let me explain. Greeting people in a line for five seconds after every Mass isn’t a great help to remember names—it’s too short and we don’t have a conversation. Uncommon names are also harder to remember. Besides, all of you look the same. Please remember that I celebrate three other Sunday Masses with many people. I ask your name, sometimes three times, because we learn by repetition. What usually happens is that I ask a person’s name three times, then on the fourth time, the person gets mad at me, and then I remember, “Oh, that’s John, he’s the one who got mad at me last week.” And then I never forget.
I could make excuses and do what some people do: when we forget a person’s name, we avoid using it. I mean, you’re the ones who have it easy: whenever you forget a priest’s name, you just say, “Hi, Father!” I could stop trying to learn names so that I don’t embarrass myself—but that would be avoiding the problem, not solving it. By trying again and again, I’m showing that I’m trying, not that I’m insincere. All this said, I will try even more. I’ll try and be more rested for Mass on the Lord’s Day.
Two notes: 1) A priest mentioned to me how some people took offence that he didn’t greet them while they were waiting in the line-up for Confession. I said to him, “That happened to me too, Father!” The reason we priests don’t greet people in the line-up is because we’ll probably know who’s making their confession once the individual enters the confession, and so we’re trying to respect your possible desire for anonymity. If we say “Hi” to everyone in the line-up, then we’ll probably know who’s making their Confession once they enter. You’ll enter and say, “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” and I’ll be like, “Well, I guess that must be you, John, because I just said ‘Hi’ to you in the line-up and everyone else waiting was a woman.” So much for the option of anonymity. You see the dilemma we have?
2) Please don’t ever leave the Church because you don’t feel welcome. Unfriendliness and lack of hospitality are sins, but we shouldn’t let the sins of others pull us away from the Church and the Eucharist. The Catholic Church does not equal simply St. Anthony of Padua parish or a few people. And it’s going to take a long time to improve, and it will always be a struggle. People will always have bad days and not treat each other well.
What a great blessing it would be if we could invite anyone to St. Anthony’s and guarantee that they’ll get a warm welcome. If 50% of us are welcoming, there’s a 50% chance that people will feel welcomed here. If I brought my mother here, and none of you recognized her, could I guarantee her a warm welcome? If all of us are more friendly, we can guarantee that people will feel loved here—that’s what we’re aiming for.
I had my conversion when I was part of a welcoming group of Catholics. And my dad had his conversion in the midst of a group of very welcoming people.
We all appreciate it when people take an interest in us, so let’s do the same for others. Jesus’ mission is our mission, and it starts with welcoming people.