If you’re reading this article while settling into a pew before Easter Mass, chances are the seating will be unusually tight. Perhaps you’re a regular attendee who sees many unfamiliar faces. Or maybe you haven’t been to church since Christmas — if not further back in time — and feel a bit out of place.
Of all the days on the church calendar, Easter and Christmas draw the largest numbers of infrequent church-goers. How such people are welcomed goes a long way toward determining how soon they’ll return, parish pastoral leaders emphasize.
Father John Hayes, for one, doesn’t believe in using Easter as a time to chew folks out.
“The biggest disservice we do is judge people because we haven’t seen them,” said Father Hayes, pastor of St. Matthew’s Parish in Livonia. “That’s not what they came to hear. They came to hear about the Resurrection. The best thing I think you can do is to try and make their experience at church a positive one and a pleasant one.”
“If they feel welcomed and not judged, they’re likely to come back another time,” agreed Rosemary Bloise, pastoral associate at St. Mary Our Mother Parish in Horseheads.
Rather than chastising these individuals, “I might say ‘Hey, same time next week,”’ Father Hayes said. “Do we wish everybody would come to church? Sure. The reality is this isn’t always the case. Our job is to plant the seed.”
He stressed that parishioners who feel put out by those who don’t attend church regularly need to stifle the expectation of having them “play by our rules.” Besides, the pastor added, “I’ve seen people who go to church every single day and are not the most Christian of people.”
Father Hayes also pointed out that we shouldn’t automatically equate unfamiliar faces with negligent attendance.
“How do I know that they don’t go to their own church in their own home town, and these aren’t people visiting relatives?” he asked.
Yet Father Hayes recalled Easter and Christmas Masses during his youth that were marked by “the priest chastising the people — ‘Where have you been?'”
“I think those days are gone,” remarked Father Frank Lioi, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Auburn. “We try to make people feel welcome, first of all, and then tell them how glad we are to see them all.”
Still, Father Lioi said it’s important also to convey that one’s Catholic faith entails a weekly obligation to attend Mass.
“You try to communicate a message that we’re not here out of guilt, but to praise God — and this needs to be ongoing,” he said. “You’re trying to instill in folks that it’s not that bad an experience to be here; it’s not that painful. You try and make the liturgy and music attractive, that there is a vibrant community that comes here. I guess it’s more subtle — to show people that the church is still alive and relevant to their lives.”
Bloise said this process is aided if church-goers experience friendly greeters at the door and meaningful homilies.
“They need to have something they can take home with them — more than the bulletin,” she remarked.
By the same token, Father Lioi said that attending Mass is more about serving than about being served.
“As Catholics, one of the primary purposes is to praise and thank God,” he said. “It’s not what we’re going to get, but it’s what we should be doing.”
Bloise said regular congregants should not only set a good example while in church, but also encourage friends and family to come to Mass if they haven’t been in some time.
“Each one of us, by virtue of our baptism, are called to evangelize,” she said. Yet Bloise also opined that “we’re not good evangelizers, we Catholics.”
Father Lioi feels the evangelization is badly needed. He noted that the last few generations of Catholics have been marked by an increasing tendency to avoid Mass attendance — holiday liturgies included.
“That’s part of the secularization of the culture. You don’t have the strong cultural ties that used to bind people to church, neighborhood and family,” Father Lioi commented. “Pope John Paul II was talking about the new evangelization. We’ve got to start all over again.”