The stranger in our pew - Catholic Courier

The stranger in our pew

On the feast of the Assumption, I had a morning meeting and couldn’t make it to my parish Mass. I looked online to find a late Mass nearby and headed out before dinner.

I was tired, hungry and leaning a bit on the "obligation" part of that "holy day of obligation" phrase. Let’s just say I was acting more on the letter of the law than its spirit. My lousy attitude led me into the last pew, a back-row Catholic for sure that evening.

Before the Mass began, the priest introduced himself and then asked us to turn to those nearby and greet one another. I was not in my parish and didn’t know anyone. I smiled, shook hands, and when the man sitting next to me with his wife introduced himself, I followed his example and told him my name.

How many people could remember — not now, but on the spot — the names of people who introduce themselves to you at Mass? Or is it usually in one ear, out the other?

At the greeting of peace, my pew mate turned to me, offered me peace, and said, "Effie. That’s an unusual name but very pretty." Well, there I was, clueless to remember his first name or his wife’s. Suddenly, my fellow Massgoer had challenged my attitude about the evening’s worship.

Here was someone who actually understood and practiced the communal aspect of our shared liturgy. Here was someone who was engaged with those around. He made me feel welcome. As a stranger in a different parish, I suddenly felt recognized, an individual, not just an invisible part of the crowd.

Years ago, I worked in a parish where we attempted to become more welcoming. Of course, like many parishes, we focused on having a trained group of greeters, "hospitality ministers," and we planned events like "name tag" Sundays where people might learn the names of fellow parishioners.

These are good tactics, but they only go so far. To be a truly welcoming church community, everyone must be invested in the process of hospitality and understand that Mass is not a private devotion.

Some parishes invite all ministries to a workshop on hospitality — not just the greeters and ushers. Everyone is encouraged to make their parish a place of welcome. This includes the parish secretary and other staff.

Parish secretaries and receptionists are the first face of a welcoming parish. Their open and generous smile behind the desk, and the way they take phone calls, speaks volumes about the parish to the newcomer.

Another aspect of a welcoming parish is when people move to the center of the pew, rather than cling to seats on the aisle. This makes it easier for people coming later to find seats, and easier for the ushers to assist them. Unless you have a disability requiring you to be near the aisle, move over.

And then, of course, there’s the lesson I learned. Even though we often don’t know those around us at Mass in big parishes, we share the same faith, we become the same body. The least we can do is prayerfully and consciously be aware of those who worship with us.

Caldarola is a columnist for Catholic News Service.


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