My last post, “Quiet, Please,” struck a nerve among some readers. Responses to me privately ranged from “Thanks,” to “I’ve been thinking the same thing,” to “Really? How do we engage people so they stay in the parish if we don’t talk to them?” and many others falling at various points somewhere along this continuum. For that reason, we might want to take a look at the other side of the coin, so to speak. But first, for anyone who didn’t see the last post, the point was that if we truly understood, respect and revere the Real Presence of our Lord and Savior in the tabernacle, we wouldn’t be socializing with friends and family in the sacred space. Socializing would be done outside the sanctuary and nave, in the gathering space or elsewhere on the church campus.
Now saying all that does not mean that we should be glum-bums and sourpusses in our personal interaction with our neighbors either. The peace and joy of being followers of Christ, of having personal relationships with him, should be evident to others when we interact with them. As St. Paul tells us, “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 14:17) We need to show that peace and joy in the Holy Spirit in the way we act toward one another as we welcome them and greet them.
“Oh yeah,” you might say—“that’s what the hospitality ministers are for.” True, that’s part of their ministry, but it’s something we all ought to be doing to create a stronger sense of community in the Risen Christ. Shaun McAfee, a convert to Catholicism, tells us:
“New parishioners and [visitors]…want to be acknowledged…want interaction…want to find a place to return to each week. More importantly, they need to be inspired by the lay members of the parish to do something in the Church and be happy doing it as well. This is contagious…The first few times I attended Mass, nobody gave me a single look or gesture or greeting until the sign of peace…” Filling Our Father’s House, Sophia Press, 2014, p. 84
What are some tangible behaviors that might illustrate McAfee’s point? Well, at a minimum, such behaviors might involve not trying to avoid someone, but making an effort to actually greet someone. But more than that, we ought to be greeting people around us with a warm smile, a handshake, a “Good morning,” quietly spoken to let them know they are welcome and that it’s good to have them here with us.
In other words, what are we doing to let them know that they matter and are important members of the body of Christ and our parish? Do we run the After-Mass-Dash as soon as we leave the sanctuary, or do we take a few minutes to chat with people either in the gathering space or over coffee and donuts? Do we search out new faces and introduce ourselves to them, striking up a brief conversation, and if we find that they are new to the parish, welcoming them and pointing them in the right direction for registering as members? Grace McKinnon, Catholic author and speaker, relates an incident that occurred in a shopping center parking lot where she met a young lady she’d seen in church the previous Sunday. Ms. McKinnon introduced herself and told the young woman that she hoped she’d see her at the parish bible study program. They chatted briefly—later the young woman approached her at the parish and told Grace that, on the very day Grace greeted her and invited her to get involved, she had been contemplating suicide. Now, years later, she is a member of a religious order.
Of course, that’s a pretty unusual situation—or is it? Do we take the opportunity to acknowledge the folks we see around the church when we run into them out in public? Are we open to letting the Holy Spirit use us as instruments of His will, to bring others to Him? How is the Holy Spirit calling each one of us to assist in the work of the Kingdom of God? Are we paying attention to His call? Or are we self-absorbed, focusing inward instead of outward toward our brothers and sisters?
So, no, in my opinion—we shouldn’t be using the sacred space of the sanctuary where the Real Presence dwells as a social club, but yes—we should be acknowledging and getting to know one another better, encouraging participation in the parish and building a stronger sense of community. Too paraphrase a line from Ecclesiastes 3:1, there’s a time and a place for everything. Carrying on chit chat in the sanctuary is not okay; quiet, brief acknowledgements and greetings without interrupting others’ private prayers is simply good etiquette that sits at the threshold of lay evangelization. Evangelization requires us to step out of ourselves, once we’ve stepped out of the sanctuary and get better acquainted with one another.