Unleash the Gospel Markers 8.2 (“The One Sheep”) and 8.3 (“The Parish as a Place of Welcome”) challenge us to prioritize the unchurched and unaffiliated. In Marker 8.2, Archbishop Vigneron reminds us that Jesus made it a priority to reach those who were not in a right relationship with God and that Christ’s primary mission must be ours as well. Marker 8.3 challenges us to change the way we envision the parish. The Archbishop writes:
It is natural to think of the parish as the place for those who belong; we are less accustomed to seeing it as the place for those who do not yet belong but are taking their first steps on the journey toward God.
Every parish should deliberate on how to welcome those who have never come to Church, or who have not been there in years, and who may cross the threshold with some trepidation. (UTG, Marker 8.3)
While we all share a desire to reach the unchurched and bring back the unaffiliated, many find doing so challenging. Why is this the case? Many of these individuals may live lifestyles that are not in line with Catholic teachings, and we struggle to truly accept them where they are. Another factor is that many of our ministries assume that people know Jesus and are seeking to take the next steps in their faith. However, the unchurched and unaffiliated often come to us having never encountered Jesus or ever having any kind of faith experience in their homes. Some have had negative experiences in the Church and others come out of obligation to keep a relative happy. Whatever the situation, if we take the time to respond in love, we can bring them one step closer to Christ and His Church.
Consider the following scenarios that happened at two different local parishes within the last few weeks:
An engaged couple wants to be married in the Catholic Church. The couple is living together. One of them is Catholic the other is not; however, both have faith and are open and excited about the marriage process. The couple seeks to connect to a parish and begin preparation for the sacrament of Matrimony.
A woman comes to another parish inquiring about baptizing her infant and two-year-old son. She recently moved to the area and hasn’t been to Church in a long time. Her two children have two different fathers. She lives with the father of the youngest child, but they are not married. Before moving to the area, she occasionally attended Catholic and non-Catholic churches.
These scenarios are “gateway moments” — times when individuals come to the Church seeking something only the Church can give: a sacrament. These are critical and unique opportunities to welcome them and reach them with the good news of Jesus Christ. When done well, this has the power to transform their lives and draw them into a life of discipleship. When done poorly, it can have the opposite effect; it can distance people from Christ and his Church.
Let us consider how these scenarios played out and the effect on the individuals who approached the Church. The couple in the first scenario contacts three different parishes in the area to inquire about Marriage Preparation; only one responds. The parish secretary is rude. The couple receives a marriage form that lists all the wedding day restrictions and prohibitions IN ALL CAPS. The couple meets with a deacon for Marriage Prep. In the first meeting, they are lectured on the conditions for mortal sin and rebuked for living together and not attending Mass weekly. The young man, who is not Catholic, is questioned on whether he understands the doctrine of transubstantiation and asked to explain how he can approach the Church for a sacrament when he doesn’t understand the tenets of the faith. The couple is lectured on the use of contraception and its negative effects. When reviewing the marriage questionnaire, the deacon presents bizarre questions and scenarios that make the couple uncomfortable.
In the second scenario, the Infant Baptism Coordinator receives the woman with warmth and kindness. She assures the woman that she and her children are welcome there. She gives her a tour of the Church and notes that it is common for babies to cry at Mass. The mother is relieved because this is a regular occurrence for her 2-year-old. The Infant Baptism Coordinator helps the woman take the next steps to get connected to the community and initiates the Infant Baptism preparation process.
Jesus’ question at the end of the Parable of the Good Samaritan echoes in my mind, “Which of these, in your opinion…was neighbor?” (Lk 10:36) The effect of these two encounters is as you might expect. The woman seeking baptism for her children felt welcomed and at home at the parish. The encounter with the Infant Baptism Coordinator paved the way for future discussions about faith, marriage, and engagement in the parish community. On the other hand, the engaged couple walked away from the parish discouraged and questioning whether they wanted to be part of a Catholic community. They abandoned the Marriage Prep process at this parish and are seeking another alternative.
In a recent article, Pope Francis warns, “let us ask for the grace to overcome the temptation to judge and categorize, and may God preserve us from the ‘nest’ mentality, that of jealously guarding ourselves in the small group of those who consider themselves good.” We must remember that Jesus ate with sinners and had the genius approach of loving people into life change. As we move forward to engage the unchurched and unaffiliated through Families of Parishes, let us prayerfully consider how we can do the same.