In recent weeks local churches have stood empty, or nearly so. In mid-March, the Diocese of Rochester and many other dioceses throughout the nation took the rare step of cancelling all public Masses in an attempt to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Just days earlier, however, the pews inside these churches had been packed with people. This was especially true inside St. Francis of Assisi and St. Hyacinth churches, which are the two worship sites of Ss. Mary and Martha Parish in Auburn. On Feb. 29 and March 1 — the first Sunday of Lent — the parish welcomed Catholics who had been away from the church through Ss. Mary and Martha’s Pack the Pews initiative.
Through this initiative, which was modeled on a similar program in Connecticut, Ss. Mary and Martha parishioners were encouraged to invite guests — specifically Catholics who do not regularly come to church — to accompany them to Mass, according to Father Justin Miller, parochial vicar at Ss. Mary and Martha.
“Essentially it’s sort of an invite-a-friend-to-church movement. The goal is, particularly for those Catholics that only come at Christmas and Easter, to give them a more regular experience of church, without a huge crowd, without special festivity,” Father Miller explained. “People may think it’s always like that — always a hassle to park, always a hassle if there’s just a huge crowd.”
Inviting others to join them at Mass also benefits regular Massgoers, Father Miller said. Every baptized Catholic is a missionary called to spread the Gospel and lead others to Jesus, he said, and the Pack the Pews initiative provided parishioners with a way to live out that call.
“It’s easy to get into a routine where you just do your Mass and your religion becomes very private, and that doesn’t really solve the bigger question of, ‘How are we going to spread the Gospel? How are we going to be God’s kingdom on earth?’ Father Miller remarked. “In a particular way, it makes it such that any parish or even all parishes would close if we just stay in our mode of privately going and not publicly witnessing. It’s just not how Christianity is.”
Father Miller hoped Pack the Pews would remind people that the life of a Christian involves growth and an ability to share one’s faith. Such faith-sharing frequently makes Catholics uncomfortable, perhaps because they have not been asked to consider their own potential abilities to spread the faith, Father Miller said.
Father Miller tried to ease parishioners’ discomfort by telling them about the initiative several weeks before Lent began and writing about it in several bulletin columns. The initiative was not about making people uncomfortable, twisting others’ arms or forcing people into the pews.
“It’s simple,” he explained. “You can just say, ‘I’m going to church at so-and-so. Do you want to come with me?’ That’s all we’re asking them to do.”
Father Miller also suggested parishioners remain attentive to their guests throughout Mass, guiding the guests through every part of the Mass if necessary. And if those guests were unable to receive Communion, he suggested their hosts might consider sitting with them in the pews instead of going up to receive the sacrament.
“It’s not a requirement that a Catholic would go to holy Communion at every Mass,” he said, noting that he suggested several different ways parishioners could make their guests feel comfortable at Mass.
Approximately 10 guests attended each of the parish’s Masses on Feb. 29 and March 1. Although the pews were not necessarily “packed,” Father Miller said the parish considers the initiative a success, especially since winter weather made traveling to Mass somewhat challenging that weekend.
“We’re going to do it again at some point. It will definitely be when the weather is nicer,” he said. “It’s better to start and even to fail or to start small than just assume, ‘Oh, that won’t work.’ It’s better to just try something.”