Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sleeping In

The bedside clock read 7AM. Rats! I had slept through the alarm and missed the 6:30A weekday mass I like to attend. So I just rolled over and went back to sleep. I woke at 8:30 again and quickly realized: Hey, wait a minute! This isn’t a weekday! But by now I had missed my usual 8:45A Sunday mass. The day wasn’t starting out well, or so I thought.

I quickly realized that the only local parish mass I could make and still get to mom’s to relieve the caregiver on time was the 10AM mass at Fr. John’s parish. I readied and headed out there, arriving in time to read my morning prayers before mass. Fr. John was the celebrant of the mass and I expected a fruitful homily --- perhaps this was why I had slept in; maybe there was something important I was to hear today. But I was disappointed. Fr. John’s sermon was very short, and not directly related to the mass readings. He spent the time stressing the importance of leaven.

He gave an example of a recent holiday that turned out to be very disappointing experience for him. It was disappointing because it started out bad, which colored his feelings about the rest of the vacation. He arrived to check in at the place he was to stay, only to find a check-in clerk who was too busy --- period. Oh, not busy with work, but with personal distractions, and was irritated that he had to stop his leisure to work, and expressed his frustration to Fr. John. Then, after a quick check, he informed Fr. John: “Sorry, no reservation in your name. You must be mistaken.” Well, I don’t have to go on with the rest of the details, you can just imagine. The point of the story was that the initial experience clouded his judgment of everything that followed, even the good stuff.

Fr. John explained the importance of first impressions, like leaven, it can spread to everything else, a bad first impression can make everything else seem bad, and a good impression can make everything else good. And the impression that Fr. John wanted his parish, his parish of good people, to make was that of a welcoming parish, from the moment someone entered the church door. He was encouraging individuals and families to sign up to be “welcomers” at future masses, standing at every church entrance, starting the experience of church for all visitors with a good impression.

It was a very simple homily, and request, and I know that simple points are the ones remembered, but my mind is not simple. So I found myself sitting after mass in the church thinking: Why?

Oh, I thought of a lot of answers to that question, but they all seemed so superficial. A welcome like that which was explained seems to me to be a social thing: Hi neighbor! It’s like something you would do to someone entering your home. Yes, it would show even uninvited people that they are guests, and it would indicate your pleasure at their arrival, but it would do nothing toward progressing the occasion of the gathering, if there was one. I mean if the occasion was a barbeque, the welcome might be: Come on in; let me grab you a beer! Or if the event were a Baptism party the welcome might be: I’m glad you could come; let me show you the baby. But just a “welcome” is something the ticket-taker does at the movie: I hope you enjoy the show. In answering my question of “why” to welcome to the church, I found myself thinking that a simple welcome does not go far enough, because it doesn’t invite the guests into the event; it doesn’t get them to be part of it.

We all know that many people go to church on Sunday because it is the cultural thing to do --- everyone goes, so they go, get it over with, and then do what they “really” want to do. That’s the feeling of Sunday service for many people of many faiths. But unlike many faiths, the Catholic mass is not just a gathering of neighbors, it is a gathering of neighbors and God. God comes to be physically present, and we physically receive Him at mass. In the Scripture readings, He speaks to us. In the prayers, we speak to Him. It’s not just any social gathering. God is there

And that’s where my short musings led me, after mass this morning.

So, to continue Fr. John’s analogy, if we wanted to spread a leavening moment at the entrance to the church, what should be done? We are believers in all that will be going on at the mass, but perhaps many others attending are not as much convinced. Well, in the moments at entrance certainly we can’t be preaching to them --- that would thin out the attendance pretty fast, and the purpose for the proposed greeters is to make the mass a better experience and encourage even more attendees, not less. But besides more, is there a way to make them better attendees?

Like the barbeque or Baptism greeting, how do you create one that gets people into the event, the mass, with the at-door greeting? I fleetingly thought about the prayers at mass: perhaps welcome people and ask if there were any prayer requests (and note them), or have a basket for prayer request cards to be dropped at the entrance --- and then later specifically include those prayers at the time of Petitions? That way you’re getting people thinking about praying and God, and looking for that during the mass? What about God’s speaking in the readings: Change the greeting each week by adding a couple of words to cue in people to what God will be saying to them, to make them focused on hearing it?

I don’t have any suggestions for a way to make the greeting at the door be both welcoming to the building, and to the event, but I think this may important to really create, as Fr. John explained, a leavening experience that expands to color the whole event. Perhaps it can’t be done at the door, and unsaid in the homily, Fr. John plans on layering on that first welcoming when he steps on the altar. Perhaps he will create that welcome into the event in some manner with a sentence or two before the mass begins. Something to get the mass “visitors” into participants of the event. Certainly we all know or remember priests who begin mass talking about the latest sports score or the weather, that’s their form of greeting at the door. And it’s not very effective, in my opinion. Perhaps Fr. John is thinking of a way to improve upon that. Perhaps a better selection of opening hymns would be a way to get people into the service?

Did God let me sleep in this morning for a reason, or are my musings after mass and here just more sleep-walking? What I heard this morning got me thinking that there should be an effective way to do this. Do you have any ideas, or examples of other parish’s success?

(And no, I don’t want to hear: Hand them a beer.)

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