How to welcome Catholics home at Christmas

How to welcome Catholics home at Christmas December 4, 2011

From OSV and Eric Sammons comes this insightful primer on how to keep people in the pews who return over the holidays:

As practicing Catholics, what can we and our parishes do to reach out to those who are estranged from or perhaps just uninterested in the Catholic Church? While this question has many possible answers, it will be helpful to review some basic principles that should form the foundation of any outreach to lapsed Catholics.

The first principle we must recognize when inviting others into a deeper practice of their faith is that each person is unique. There is no magic formula that will bring droves of people flocking back to Mass each week. Evangelization is hard work, and it is work that is most successful when done on the personal level.

While there may be certain generalities regarding why many Catholics have left, or lessened, the practice of the faith, it would be a disservice to each one to simply stereotype “the estranged Catholic.” Keeping this diversity in mind, what are some practical ways we can meet the needs of individuals who have lapsed in their practice of the Faith?

One thing a parish can do is work to address the diverse issues lapsed Catholics have with the Church. Holding “inquiry meetings” was one successful and popular outreach at my previous parish that addressed this need. Before each Christmas and Easter Mass we left small fliers on every seat in the church; these fliers invited Massgoers to an inquiry meeting where they would be able to ask any question they might have about the Catholic faith. We made it clear in the flier that no question was out-of-bounds. Then, at the meeting, a knowledgeable layperson was on hand to answer the questions. (You might ask: Why not a priest? Our pastor felt that attendees would be more open about their questions if a fellow layperson was answering them). These meetings were free-wheeling and unpredictable. Some of the questions included, “Why do Protestants read the Bible more than Catholics?” “Why don’t we abstain from meat on Fridays?” and “Why do we have to listen to the pope?”

At one inquiry meeting, a particularly aggressive-looking man sat in the audience. After the preliminaries, the floor was turned over for questions, and this individual immediately raised his hand, asking, in a confrontational manner, “I’m a scientist, and I want to know why the Church insists that we believe in a seven-day literal creation.” The moderator calmly responded, “It doesn’t.” After some back-and-forth, the moderator was able to show, from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that the Church does not teach as dogma a literal seven-day creation (although it doesn’t require its members to reject that thesis either). After this exchange, the scientist was noticeably at ease, and later commented that he no longer felt that there was tension within himself between what he felt he must believe at Church and what he believed at work. By simply directing him to the teaching of the Church, our parish was able to help this person understand and live his faith more fully.

While it is important that we recognize the uniqueness of each person we are attempting to invite back to the Church, but it is even more vital that we focus on what exactly it is we are inviting them to. A fallacy I’ve observed in many parishes is the assumption that being a good Catholic means being an involved parishioner — involved in committees, ministries and parish outreaches. Although there are many valuable groups in every parish, God calls each person to holiness, not busyness.

This brings us to our second principle of welcoming people back to the Church: Remember that we are leading people primarily to a Person, not simply some human institution. We are each called to encounter Christ directly and let ourselves become, as St. Paul often said, “like Christ.” In practical terms, this means that our focus should not be on someone’s involvement in the parish, but instead on their relationship with Christ. Do not confuse inviting estranged Catholics to deepen their practice of the Faith with inviting them to join every committee and ministry your parish offers. Our goal for such persons is that they encounter Jesus Christ in the sacraments and through prayer. So put an emphasis on confession, Eucharistic adoration, the Rosary and other activities that draw them closer to our Lord.

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32 responses to “How to welcome Catholics home at Christmas”

  1. Many churches they better satr doing something otherwise there will be none to welcome…specially on the hispanic community(Scranton Diocese)

  2. This is what happens every year in our parish.

    1) All priests devote the entire Homily to discussing lapsed Catholics. “Where were you last week?”

    2) The congregation is repeatedly warned before Mass by a priest addressing the congregation and during the Homily not to take Communion if they did not go to Confession in the past week.

    3) Visitors/family/friends are warned not to accept Communion if they are not Catholic or have not gone to Confession.

    So the majority of the Christmas sermon is warning folks not to accept Sacraments and why they are such lousy Catholics instead of focusing on the meaning of day.

  3. So at Christmas Mass I guess I shouldn’t stand outside the front door with my arms folding, giving the stinkeye to anyone who doesn’t look familiar? Seriously, this article is good and the topic hit home this past Easter. I become an usher recently (I prefer to be called a bouncer) and noticed that the Church did not exactly make it easy for people to be seated. I tried as best I could to get everyone a seat but the parish should have put out some folding chairs in the lobby, at least as much as they could without fire code issues. The priest went on and on during the Mass and his homily as he is inclined to do, so that many people were leaving during the homily which was about an hour after the start of the Mass (which started 15 minutes late because the same priest had the previous Mass). Catholics should at least try to leave a good impression at Christmas, Easter, etc… because you never know when the holiday Catholics may start becoming every Sunday Catholics. Some basic practical steps might help: Limiting the homily and extra-Liturgical yaking, keeping the Church warm for Christmas and cool for Easter as much as possible, welcoming people warmly, keeping the bathrooms less than disgusting, etc.. And of course, most importantly: Do the Red, Say the Black!

  4. The Church has to resolve the tension in the Church between its evangelization and missionary outreach to lapsed Catholics and its position on certain issues that keeps lapsed Catholics away. For example, how can the parents of a child conceived with the help of in vitro methods feel comfortable raising the child in a Church that sees their loving act of bringing a child into the world as a sin? I know one former alter boy who loved the Church who has been very hurt by the Church’s language in this area who has left the Church in pain. I am sure pain is also caused to the child’s loving grandparents. Also, I think refusing the Eucharist to divorced and remarried Catholics keeps many away – not only the couples themselves but their families too. The Church has to decide whether it can extend mercy and forgiveness to these couples – why should they come back to the Church when they can find Jesus’ love and mercy somewhere else? If the Church cannot fully accept these individuals and others, then I think it needs to be honest in its outreach and evangelization and indicate that it is leading a person back to an institution with rules. My feeling is that the Church is meant to imitate the father of the prodigal who fully embraces and forgives the prodigal while he is far off and still unwashed.

  5. “My feeling is that the Church is meant to imitate the father of the prodigal who fully embraces and forgives the prodigal while he is far off and still unwashed.”

    The father in the parable forgave his son becuase the son returned to him and said he was sorry. As the Baptist said in the Gospel today, reform your lives. I see no contrition in divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment or do not seek one after a second marriage so their marriage can be validated.Where is the contrition?
    We have been down the “in vitro” road before on this blog. If this altar boy is saddened by the language of the Church, why did he do it knowing what the Church teaches about it? Seems he brought the pain on himself and now is blaming the Church.

  6. Deacon Greg and others have referred to the saying that the Church is a ‘hospital for sinners, more then a shrine to saints’. Barbara we say this but sometimes we come across as if we really do not mean this- we leave the impression that the splinter in the other guy’s eye is beyond redemption- ignoring the plank in our own eye. Especially the 2 by 4 of false pride of declaring the other guy unworthy.

    I have said this before, you don’t have to water down the faith to proclaim that all of us are sinners who struggle, for most over and over, and are in need of constant forgiveness and mercy by loving God and our family and our loved ones. It’s why we are doing God’s work when we honestly say that all are welcome ( without qualifiers)

    Such humility, and such embrace of the unworthy sinners shunned by so many inside and outside the church, would be a church worthy of return. It would also change the world. May all of us collectively and individually be such a Church this Christmas and beyond.

  7. Read the parable again – the father’s embrace came before he heard an apology from his son.

  8. I think the altar boy is the child born of in vitro fertilization. How did he bring pain on himself? Because he was born? So much for “respect for life.”

  9. I have read the parable many times. No one says the Church doesn’t embrace the sinner. It doesn’t embrace the sin. I think we have heard that a million times. Out of love for the sinner it calls them to conversion. That was John ‘s message in the Gospel TODAY. Make straight the path to the Lord.

  10. I guess the issue to prayerfully consider is how the Church defines the word “embrace” and whether that definition comports with the meaning Jesus gave the word in the parable.

  11. Is the Church “embracing” sinners or holding them at arms length because they smell of pig dirt?

  12. How about stopping to try to chase people away who currrently attend Mass? Even at Mass today, our pastor continues to bash the former translation of the Roman Missal. Go ahead if you want to praise the new translation, but stop bashing the former translation. He continues to divide the church when a little discretion says he should say nothing. Meanwhile, our bishop does nothing about it.

  13. First, I don’t get where you are coming from in all of this? Is the Church now supposed to condone sin? Are there no consequences for sinful behavior? Why do we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Did Jesus condone sin when the woman was caught in adultery? No he did not nor did he condemn her.
    Second, should the Church now redefine what a sin is? Cardinal Ratzinger, now the Pope, wrote a document in 1998 on the Pastoral Care of Divorced and remarried Catholics. He didn’t sound like he would ever change the teaching on divorce and remarriage as it comes from Jesus Christ himself.
    It is apparent these days that many people don’t have any concept of sin. They do something knowing it is wrong and then they want the church to look the other way. Unreal.

  14. The question is not where we are coming from but where does Jesus take us if we follow Him? “Love one another as I have loved you.” How did Jesus love? He forgave His killers from the Cross who never even asked for His Mercy. I don’t pretend to have answers – I have questions that I take to Him in prayer. I think it is time that the Church does the same thing and reflect on whether it is doing all it should be doing to embrace His people – who when it comes down to it, are all sinners.

  15. Jesus forgave those who killed him because he said they did not know what they were doing. Divorced and remarried, IVF users etc etc usually know exactly what they are doing.They can always seek forgiveness, the church isn’t stopping them.
    It is useless to discuss this any further since you seem to know better than the Church. I will stick with the Church. peace.

  16. Am I missing something here? I thought the topic of this blog was how we do (or do not) welcome Roman Catholics into our parishes who only attend mass at Christmas and Easter.

    But since the stream deteriorated to the new text of the liturgy, let me add my insight.

    This text was created by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. It consisted of a lot of representatives from all across the English-Speaking world: England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, East India, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Guyana, among others.

    The bishops of the United States on this committee were numerically outnumbered and culturally overpowered. While the “American” text of the Mass used prior to this point is widely known throughout the world (because the text is so readily available in-print and on-line), it is not the everyday diction and vocabulary of the rest of the English-Speaking cultures.

    Besides, there are a lot of English-Speaking cultures out in the wider world that have a genuine dislike of cultural things/language which are clearly American. “The Ugly American” was not just a slogan of the pre-Vietnam era, but it is still out there.

    The problem was, no other one cultural diction and vocabulary was attractive enough to adopt either. The answer was a compromise of sorts — everyone could agree to the strict translation of a “Latinized” text that we all have currently adopted.

    Is is “American” enough for our cultural comfort — No! But it is not “British” enough for their cultural comfort; nor “Aussie” enough for their cultural comfort; nor “Kiwi” enough for their cultural comfort.

  17. And people wonder why Catholics lapse into indifference. We can’t even get along among ourselves.

    One of the most compelling and poignant aspects of the parable of the prodigal son is that the father’s love was unconditional. He ran to embrace his son “while he was still a long way off.” He had no way of knowing if the son was contrite. All he knew was that the son was on his way home. That was enough to send the father running to embrace him and kiss him, no questions asked. The son, moved by his father’s love and mercy, then expressed his contrition.

    But here we stand, like the other brother, petulant and proud.

    This topic couldn’t be more timely. This morning, while greeting people after Mass, I was approached by a woman who said, “Something you mentioned in your homily really touched me. You talked about people coming in to the Church. RC, something?”


    She nodded.

    “How do I sign up for that?” Her voice broke. “I’ve been gone from the Church for a long time. This is the first time I’ve been to Mass in years.”

    She was sobbing.

    I asked her if she had received all her sacraments. She told me she had.

    “Then you don’t have to go through RCIA. You’re already here,” I told her. “Welcome home!”

    She told me her brother just wanted one thing for Christmas. He wanted her to come back to church. Last weekend, she promised to do that. Today, she made good on that promise.

    We talked some more. She brought up confession. I told her it would be great for her to go to confession, told her to check the bulletin for times. “It’s wonderful to have you back,” I said. I opened my arms and we embraced and I wished her a merry Christmas.

    Dcn. G.

  18. Getting back to the topic, it seems to me that a priest like the one in George’s parish who tells a congregation that they may not receive Communion unless they’ve been to Confession within the past week is almost a heretic. He is rejecting the teaching of the Church which is that “[a]nyone conscious of grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion.” That priest’s bishop should be alerted to the false teaching being given and should have a serious talk with him.

    Perhaps it would be okay at some point to call visitors’ attention to the “Guidelines for Reception of Holy Communion” which are printed in all missalettes.

    Above all, the attitude shouldn’t be, “Where were you last week?” but, “We’re glad to see you, and we hope we’ll see you again real soon. You’re always welcome”

  19. Praise the Lord!

    Her brother gives an example of one good way of bringing people back: personal invitation.

  20. natur. . .
    ““We’re glad to see you, and we hope we’ll see you again real soon. You’re always welcome”


  21. Embrace! That’s the picture many lapsed Catholics have in their minds of the Church welcoming them home. I am so happy you embraced that woman, Dcn G. I dare say, that’s the sacrament of welcoming. It may sound a bit touchy-feely but, honestly, that’s how many wish to be welcomed. They have that picture in their minds of the Church being so glad to have them back that they are embraced. It’s what I’ve done anytime I’ve encountered someone returning (and there have been some very lengthy ones, one which was gone longer than the age of our white-haired pastor!). There is something very welcoming about that unconditional welcome. At that point, there are usually tears on both sides…and the person returning asks to go to confession. Welcome back, my son/daughter who was dead! Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

  22. Barbara, every time something along this line comes up, your comments come back again and again not to seeking forgiveness, but to calls for the Church to change its position on divorce and remarriage without anullment or to change its position on IVF or other areas as something required to truly welcome everyone back.

    Many who argue for something like this love to point out the words “he who is without sin cast the first stone” but forget Jesus words to the woman to ‘sin no more.” Since the Church is never going to change its position on divorce, IVF, abortion, marriage between one man and one woman, etc, one can assume that those who demand those positions change to be welcomed home have a very long wait. The person living in sin must have a firm resolve to stop this sin and that starts with acknowledging it is a sin and that they need to stop. Everyone of us with a thorn in our heel have a tough time stopping that sin and yet our hope is not in the Catholic Church suddenly saying gay sex or whatever else it is now is no longer a grave sin, but in our ongoing efforts to reconcile ourselves to Church teaching and accept our total need on God’s grace to do what we cannot seem to manage. The divorced person will need to stop living in sin with the person by taking up this cross for Christ and walking the hard path. The gay person will need to leave a celebate life. The person who supports abortion in any way must stop lying to themselves that their act is not directly related even though they know deep down if their support stopped, it would help to bring this evil to an end. The priest who abuses kids must stop and turn themselves in to their superior and take their punishment. All in sin must want to stop, be willing to take up the cross, and give full surrender to Christ.

  23. If the pastor is saying this new translation is a corrected version, he is correct. The old translation was indeed in need of correction which was the purpose of the entire process which has approval of the Pope and magesterium and also the USCCB.

  24. I totally agree that we should welcome with open arms those who want to return to the Church. We assume that they are returning because like the prodigal son, they discovered being apart led them to the pigs and they remembered the warm embrace of the Catholic Church. Everything is fine to this point as it was with the father and son and even with the elder brother. However, what if the next day, the son assumed his welcome home meant that he was again free to ask for his inheritence once again so he could go out again to the life he led in sin and expect the father to provide him the funds to once again go and lead a life of sin? We should assume from this story that the son learned his lesson in the most painful way and that he would not assume that all the rules would now change to become more like what the son discovered outside his home in the world. In fact, if the house of the father changed all its rules to make the son not only welcome, but matched life outside that home in all its evil, we would soon find the entire family feeding the hogs. The prodigal has to now accept the house rules if he plans to continue to live here.

    I remember a few years ago, a good friend of mine had a son on drugs and time after time he welcomed back to his home only to have his hopes dashed when the son fled, usually taking enough money and things with him to support his habit until finally he died. His fathers love seemed endless, but in the end, he realized that he was not showing love, but had become an enabler of evil that killed his son. Too many think that ignoring grave sin is welcoming love even while we are enabling the person Christ calls us to love leading them to their ultimate eternal life apart from God. Bishop Sheen taught that this type of love is not love at all, but a form of hatred for it offers cheap grace and leads to false hopes and denial. There is no easy path for any who seek to follow Christ and if we do not stop someone returning from thinking that Church teaching has or will change to make their grave sin normal and acceptable, we are doing them a grave harm and this cannot please Christ. However, making sure they know that Christ is at the door and waiting for them to knock and that He wants them with Him for all eternity is an important first step. But the second part is just as important.

  25. Of course God was calling her Dcn Greg long before your homily – He just used you today to close the deal
    ( and how cool is that!)

    Happy Advent

  26. Please read my words carefully. I am talking about forgiveness and Mercy not about the Church changing its positions. With respect to divorce and remarried Catholics, the issue is a second marriage. Do you expect people to walk away from those relationships? What if children are involved?

  27. Barbara, you speak of forgiveness and mercy. But there is no forgiveness unless there is something to forgive. You focus on the divorced and remarried. While it may be in some instances, that the person who wishes to participate in Communion committed some sins that led to the break-up of the first marriage, or that s/he even committed a sin in seeking the divorce, it is not such sins of the past, if any, that are the reason for the current exclusion from Communion. The problem is that the second marriage is, according to the teaching and belief of the Church, presumed to be adulterous. Like any other sin, the Church readily forgives adultery for the repentant. But how can the Church presume to be merciful and forgive a sin which the person has no intention whatever of abandoning? So how can the Church admit a person in a second marriage (where there has been no annulment of the first) to Communion without changing its positions?

  28. I view it as an act of Forgiveness and Mercy to allow people who for whatever reason cannot live out their first marriage vows to be able to receive the Eucharist and the Anointing of the Sick on their deathbed. To attach the sin of adultery to people who have been divorced and have a second marriage that they live out joyfully and faithfully I think is a withholding of Forgiveness and Mercy that is not justifed by reality. But if that is a change in position, then so be it. As for in vitro, I do think that the Church should revist that issue in the context of a marriage.

  29. I hear you, Barbara. I know folks who have left the Church over the in vitro issue. And the pope himself has asked theologians to explore the painful problem of divorced and remarried Catholics being kept from the Eucharist. (This article posted today has more on that topic.) I’m not anticipating any change in Church teaching, but She will have to find better ways of teaching it if people are to be persuaded.

    Dcn. G.

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