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Hospitality: The Necessity of Invitations
How do you convince people they actually belong?
So this summer one thing that kept me (and the whole family) so busy was the pending engagement of our eldest daughter. It was a good process, but not a simple one, and therefore we ended up with a story about one of those emotionally-driven gateway challenges of parish hospitality.
Here’s the situation: The now-fiancé lives out of town, but he had an opportunity to come stay with us in the month stretching from my family reunion (meet some aunts, uncles, and cousins) and his family’s vacation at the nearest-to-us beachy destination (so the two families could meet each other). Understandably, our future boy-in-law wanted his family to be able to celebrate the engagement when it happened.
Now this engagement wasn’t a shocker. The happy couple had been dating for enough years that they had thoroughly talked through the question of marriage, she had given him some preferences re: rings, the green lights were all there. But, he is of a romantic bent and wanted the proposal to be a surprise for her!
Well, as a result, the entire family and nearly everyone else knew about the proposal plans, but my daughter did not. So far so good.
Complication: Marriage prep.
Our parish hosts a strong-enough marriage preparation program that (a) a description of it went into the first draft of the book manuscript* and (b) other parishes send their engaged couples to prepare for the sacrament with us. It’s solid.
It’s also a labor- and time-intensive twelve-week program spearheaded by some very busy parish clergy, so at present we can only offer the program once a year.
Therefore, when it came time for the 2023 session to be offered, Father explicitly said come even if you aren’t yet engaged. If you want to get married any time in the next year-and-change, enroll in the session starting this summer!
How perfect, right? Boyfriend was staying with us, the happy couple could attend the first several sessions in-person before switching to zoom, what a great way for him to get to know our parish and the two of them to get plugged in on the whole wedding-planning process, etc., etc. You couldn’t ask for better timing.
Except: My girl was very self-conscious about the lack of a ring.
The rest of us all knew it was coming in just a few short weeks after the class began. However, in order to maintain the romantic-surprise aspect of the proposal, casual chatter about engagement plans had quietly petered off. Our girl was a little anxious, in fact, that maybe the ring wasn’t coming until Thanksgiving or Christmas.
As a result: She wasn’t convinced she should be coming to this class.
Boyfriend aggressively taking charge to make sure they got signed up and attended, even though this isn’t his parish and furthermore he really didn’t know his way around the bureaucratic side of adult Catholic life *at all*.
Parents priming staff and Father about the situation and saying: Please please please keep repeating that No Ring is Necessary to Attend.
Father gamely giving examples of couples who were merely boyfriend-girlfriend attending, including some in the past who later decided not to get married and were glad they’d done the preparation as a vocation-discernment process. No pressure! All are welcome! Come and see!
Personal encouragement and invitations from key staff and clergy.
Mom dragging that child into the room that first morning after Mass and making some introductions, and handing her off to the very friendly staff point-person, who in turn introduced her and boyfriend to other couples she could relate to.
Child finally letting herself be dragged even though she felt very uncomfortable about attending.
Now once the proposal came, she looked back and realized what had been going on, and everything was better. She’s definitely glad her family and parish conspired to get her there, and wedding plans are underway. Happy ending!
But let’s think about this. Here is someone who is:
A parish insider. This is her home parish, she went through confirmation-prep here, sung in the choir, the parents are involved . . . she’s not a stranger to this place, nor to Catholic life.
Highly motivated in a general way. Girl wants to be married!
Literally a perfect fit for the intended purpose of this class.
Had many, many people working to explicitly, repeatedly reassure her that she did indeed belong, including the person most central to this situation, the visiting boyfriend.
And yet she had a hurdle to participation due to a very real and understandable concern about whether she really belonged in this particular sacramental-prep program.
This example is not a fluke.
When we talk about hospitality, we tend to think mostly of what happens after people come in the door. Fair enough. But the very first step in being hospitable is extending the invitation.
The people you are trying to invite into your parish life need repeated reassurance:
This thing is for people like me.
That issue I’m worried about is no big deal.
I will be welcomed and treated cordially and respectfully.
I won’t be the total weirdo.
People won’t be thinking what is that person doing here???
There’s a plan for how someone in my situation can fit in and belong.
It’s a tall order.
As regular people with limits on our powers, we can’t expect to do this perfectly and perfectly-completely. But we can cultivate a growing awareness of hurdles our invitations and follow-up invitations need to overcome:
Who are the people who are the intended audience for this event, but might not realize it because they don’t think they “fit the profile”?
Who are the people who might feel uncomfortable joining us, even though they are truly welcome?
What are the logistical obstacles we have to help them overcome?
What are some unintentional “slights” that aren’t slights at all, but might feel that way to someone who is unsure about belonging here?
How can I provide repeated reassurance?
How can I provide repeated invitations?
How can I make it as easy as possible for someone to end up here?
And what are my follow-up opportunities to re-invite after the first visit?
What we have to resist, meanwhile is the worn-out routine of, “No one here has that problem, therefore it’s not a problem.” Reality? The people with that problem didn’t come precisely because they have that problem.
It’s up to us to discover what those invisible-to-us hurdles are, so that we can reach out, repeatedly, to remove the obstacles.
*Cut due to miscellaneous editorial constraints, not due to any doubts, from anyone, about whether it was a valuable example, worth sharing, of a sacramental preparation program that effectively evangelizes and disciples.