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The Habit of Extraversion
People need to feel loved, wanted, and welcomed at your parish. How’s that going?
My daughter and I were traveling in a rural area not known for its tourist traffic, and we stopped for Sunday Mass at a small country parish. The pews weren’t stuffed, but there was good turnout across the age spectrum, which is always a reassuring sign. It was a feast day, and the service hit that sweet spot of pretty-good technical execution and loads of heart. It was a great day to be Catholic.
When the music ended and the nave had emptied of the last few people who had stayed for silent prayer after the Mass, I went up front and complimented the organist and cantor, and then wandered outside to thank the pastor for an insightful sermon. The weather was glorious, and maybe a dozen or so parishioners were lingering on the front patio, chatting with each other while waiting their turn to speak to Father.
What came next was a long, long time of standing there by myself while I waited my turn, and even though these were friendly people to each other, no amount of smiling and attempting eye contact could get even a nod in return, let alone a hello. It was like I didn’t exist.
Let me pause here and be very, very clear: I have frequently been the person who is preoccupied, exhausted, distracted, or just plain too awkward to greet the new person, even when I know the person is new, even when I actively want to say hello and be welcoming. I am not, at all, calling out this one parish. I’m not calling out you. I’m just talking about a thing that happens and we need to be aware of.
The reason this one visit stood out in my long experience of visiting new-to-me parishes is because the conditions made the situation so plain. There was zero possibility of mistaking me for a local, and there was zero chance of my blending in and being overlooked, and there was nothing tense or rushed or heavy-laden in the air that would explain why the people around me were completely, totally, absolutely ignoring me. They were just shy around strangers, I think.
I can be shy. I get it. Totally get it.
Something my kids always notice when they are guests at an Evangelical Protestant congregation is how forcefully welcomed they are, whether they like it or not. There’s a whole vein of Evangelical satire built up around how introvert-unfriendly that culture of welcoming can be. If you want peace and quiet, if you need to be left alone to spend time with God, go to a Catholic Mass, for sure.
Furthermore, I’ve heard from evangelicals who have been frustrated by the inability to make deep friendships in their congregation. They grow discouraged if their relationships remain stuck at the superficial over-bright smiles and painfully inane small talk, which had been so warm on that first day but after a year or two of trying to get involved in their community serve as a weekly reminder that they are ultimately alone in this crowd. Hospitality has deeper dimensions than just saying hello.
Repeating: I am not one of those never-met-a-stranger people who bounce through life striking up conversations like a starving car salesmen. I’m usually happy to chat if I can, and the if I can is sometimes a significant obstacle, but I’m not great at initiating that first exchange. I’m even worse at knowing what to say next, past hello. Small talk is not my strong suit.
Still, as Catholics we need to be open to the reality that there are people who are coming through our parishes who are looking for companionship. Their reasons vary, their deeper needs run the gamut, but they really, truly, profoundly want someone to speak to them. They are looking to the Body of Christ to be the handshake and smile and kindness of Christ.
I’ve been burned at the friendliness game. When my kids were younger it was my habit to sit on the playground after Mass while they played, and my fellow mom-friend and I eventually made a decision that we would not get wrapped up in our conversation with each other, specifically so that we could be available to other parents and grandparents who were sitting alone.
One day it was just me out there and another mom I’d never seen before, and she was sitting there at the picnic table, not reading or checking her phone or talking to her child who was happily occupied. So I said hello and tried a little bit of that conversation thing. And she shut me down. Cold as ice. Minimal response and looked at me like I was a complete freak for daring to speak to the other adult out there on the playground after church.
That was not a great experience for a shy person trying to stretch herself.
But that lady was a major exception. Most people, most of the time, are just fine with someone saying hello.
All I want to say today about your parish’s, and your own, efforts at evangelization is this: We as Catholics need to develop the habit of being more out-going.
For a parish to be welcoming, it takes more than just the pastor and a handful of designated staff or volunteers to be the official greeters. One or a few people cannot succeed in providing that longed-for human warmth and contact to every visitor or lonely regular. Everyone in the parish needs to adopt a mindset that it is normal and desirable to greet the other people around them.
I don’t mean here that you’re a terrible Catholic if you are just barely holding on through Mass despite your migraine, or your kid has an overflowing diaper and needs to be whisked away pronto, or you have someplace else to be (mentally or physically) and you, personally, can’t win the hospitality award this week. You win the attendance award for managing to make it despite yourself, and you can try again for congeniality another day.
Indeed, cultivating the parish-wide habit of friendliness beyond our private circles is so important precisely because we need to be able to stand in for each other. Those who can manage to say a few kind words to the comparative stranger need to step up and do it, because not everyone in the congregation is going to have that ability after any given Mass.
In a future installment I may run through some specific tactics for how to carry out this hospitality thing, but this week I want to stop here with just a single goal for your personal homework: Try to be 10% more welcoming this coming week than you otherwise would be.
Whatever that means for you, given your state in life, your strengths and weaknesses, your emotional baggage and your personal obligations . . . aim to stretch just a tiny bit beyond your usual welcoming game. And then when you get comfortable there, whether that’s in a day or a week or a year, level-up another notch.
For the advanced course, if you really want to see things happen: Pray for God to send someone to your parish the next time you are at Mass who needs the amount of welcome you have to offer.
God bless and have a great week!
OK and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention there’s a whole chapter specifically on hospitality in the Evangelization guidebook, plus a pile of other chapters that hit on yet more of the mindset and practicalities.