We’ve known Deacon Andrew for over seven months; Would you say he’s friendly? What about me? What about yourselves? I wonder how serious we are about being friendly.
I read a real story about an airline company was “fanatical about its culture. It had three core values, one of which had to do with humor. What testifies to the fact that this is a true core value is that the company refuses to hire people in any job… who don’t have a sense of humor… A great example of this occurred when a frequent flyer wrote to the company’s CEO complaining that a flight attendant was making jokes during the preflight safety check. She was upset that the employee was trying to be funny while he was talking about something as serious and important as safety. Now, most CEOs would respond to that complaint by thanking the customer for her time and her loyalty to the airline and assuring her that safety was, indeed, important to the organization. They would then promise to look into the matter to make sure that the flight attendant adjusts his behavior to avoid offending any other passengers who could be uncomfortable with the jokes… Well, the CEO of this company took a different approach. Rather than apologizing to the customer… he wrote her a short note with three words on it: ‘We’ll miss you.’ There can be little doubt that the company believed that humor was a core value” (Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage, 94-95).
How serious are we about what we believe? One thing that bothers me about some Catholic parishes is that we say we’re Catholic but don’t live it. We say God is the most important thing, but then don’t show it. We say the Eucharist is Jesus, but people coming in off the street would never think that we worship the Eucharist. We say we’re kind, but have ever called a Catholic church on the phone and listened to the way they treat you? It’s sad.
Today, God is asking us: How serious are we about friendliness and hospitality? The first reading and Gospel both deal with the theme of welcoming. In the first reading, Abraham sees three men standing near him and, when he sees them, runs toward them, offers them water, washes their feet, asks them to stay and rest, and cooks them food (Gn 18:1-5). He is serious about hospitality. In the Gospel, St. Martha welcomes Jesus and takes care of Him. Even though it’s more important to sit and listen to Jesus, as St. Mary did, St. Martha’s welcoming was also important (Lk 10:38-42).
(As a side note, the first reading and Gospel during Sunday Mass are always connected. The first reading is chosen to reflect some theme in the Gospel, while we continually read from the same book of the Bible for the second reading. We started with the letter to the Colossians last week and will listen to it for the next four weeks.)
Obviously there’s a theme of welcoming in today’s first reading and Gospel. Again, the question is: How serious are we about it? Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me…. Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:35,40). When we welcome other people we welcome Jesus. It’s a kind of emotional feeding, and people are starving to be loved and welcomed.
The Church exists not only for those who belong, but also for those who don’t. Clubs exist only for their members (Fr. James Mallon, Divine Renovation, 101). We are a family, not a club, and we exist to welcome people into this family that God created. A big part of our mission is to welcome visitors and guests. If we don’t, how are we going to love them, how are we going to bring Jesus to them?
Andre Regnier, the founder of CCO, the fastest growing Catholic young adult ministry in Canada and hugely fruitful, once asked a group of priests, “The people who live in your neighbourhood and who aren’t Catholic, what do they mean to you?” Let’s think about that for a moment. The people who live in the apartment buildings across the street either aren’t Catholic or are Catholic but don’t practice their faith—what do they mean to us? His own answer struck me deeply. He said the people who don’t belong mean everything to him. Why? Because they mean everything to Jesus. Jesus left the 99 sheep to go in search of the one, because that one meant everything to Him (cf. Lk 15:3-7).
We should be the friendliest place in Vancouver. After all, Pope Francis said, “The Church, as desired by Jesus, is the home of hospitality. And how much good we can do, if only we try to speak this language of hospitality, this language of receiving and welcoming. How much pain can be soothed, how much despair can be allayed in a place where we feel at home!”
Now we all have reservations: we may be naturally shy, we may think it’s our responsibility, we’re not used to it, or we’re busy. But Jesus is challenging us lovingly to overcoming our reservations, and, like we said last week, we need to take one uncomfortable step forward in this.
I too have a reservation. Many priests, when they start Mass, after the sign of the cross and greeting, do a little off-the-cuff introduction and welcome people. But I’ve never wanted to do this because I feel it’s a distraction from the sacredness of the Mass. One devout Catholic, however, mentioned to me that, when he was visiting another parish, he really appreciated that the priest was happy to see guests and said so. Realizing that this had such a positive effect, I started wondering what I should do. So what we did today we’ll continue to do: We’ll make an announcement before Mass welcoming everyone, especially visitors, and give a little quote from a saint about the Mass, so that we can transition from the announcement into prayer and prepare ourselves better for Mass. We always have guests here and not only are we happy to welcome them, we want to show that we’re happy. By doing this before Mass, we’ll keep the Mass as a sacred prayer where we focus on God.
By now, everyone knows about the Welcome Booth, which is set up outside on dry days. There we have two ministers who are ready to serve, answer questions, give information, give pamphlets about baptisms and weddings, register new parishioners, and to whom I direct everyone when they have more questions. Again, this shows we’re serious.
My personal goal is to know everyone’s name at the parish. Why? Because we’re brothers and sisters. This isn’t just nice talk. This is a reality that effects our lives. Just as it’s embarrassing when I don’t know names, I think it’s embarrassing that Christians don’t know the names of their brothers and sisters.
Here are three opportunities that might help: 1) When we did the Learning Names Initiative it gave us permission to get to know each other. One person said she’s known people who sit next to her for years but never knew their names, but, after learning each other’s names, they always greet each other.
2) St. Benedict’s parish in Halifax has Name Tag Sunday every month. People bring their own name tags or get them written in the foyer of the church. Fr. James Mallon, the pastor, says, “We can at least do something… to show that [meaningful connections] really [are] of value to us, no matter how poorly we may be doing it. We want to go to war with the notion of anonymous Christianity. So everyone gets a name tag once a month. It has been over three years since we began this initiative. Resistance has been minimal…. On the very first weekend we did this… I received only two complaints, and both were lamenting the fact that we were not going to do this every week…. We can begin to break through the wall of anonymity and take the first step towards building meaningful community” (Fr. James Mallon, Divine Renovation, 145). It’d be great if we were to do this in conjunction with the Pancake Breakfast.
3) What about Halo-halo Sunday? We could have coffee and juice after every Mass, but why not something more interesting? It would be an excuse to celebrate and mingle after Mass, and an excuse for me to have Halo-halo three times on Sunday.
Lastly, we’re thrilled to announce that we’re starting the Alpha Course on September 8. Alpha is a world-class and world-famous program designed as an introduction to Christianity. We come together for a meal, then watch a video, then have a conversation. “All sessions start with food, because it’s a great way to connect, relax and build friendships.” The video “talks are designed to be engaging and inspire conversation. Usually around 30 minutes long, they explore the big issues around faith and unpack the basics of Christianity, addressing questions like ‘Who is Jesus?’, ‘Why and how do I pray?’ and ‘How does God guide us?’” After that there’s a conversation, a “chance to share thoughts and ideas… There’s no obligation to say anything; it’s an opportunity to hear from others and contribute your own perspective.”
What makes it so fruitful is that it focuses on hospitality (They welcome people, eat together, listen and love) and the videos are amazing. Alpha has been hugely fruitful in the world, with an estimated 20 million people taking it. It’s what brought my father back to the Church. He was raised in the Philippines and went to a Jesuit school but never believed Jesus was real. After going to Alpha, he was persuaded by the well-presented facts and came back to the Church—no small feat. Please think about coming. I’d love everyone to take it, because it builds relationships and deals with the fundamentals, and it’s always good to revisit the fundamentals.
Now this is exciting: we’re hosting not here in the church, but at the local coffee shop Gigi Blin on W 70th Ave. and Cartier St. Why? Because Alpha is suited in a special way for those without a church background. Invite your friends and fallen-away Catholics. For so many people, they’re not ready to come to “St. Anthony’s” for RCIA, and Mass is designed for Catholics who already understand the faith and prayer. Our friends need something more familiar, perhaps less intimidating. So we’re going to neutral territory: people will think, “I don’t mind going to a coffee shop for dinner, a discussion, a great video.” We’ll have more information in the next few weeks.
Hebrews 13:2 says: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels.” The author of Hebrews is referring to many Old Testament incidents, one of which is Abraham welcoming the three men. Some Church Fathers believed he was welcoming the Blessed Trinity in human form.
By learning everyone’s names, greeting people, by our announcement before Mass, by our Welcome Booth, and by starting Alpha, we’re saying that we’re serious about hospitality.