A word that may conjure up images of decadent hotels and elegant British tea service. In our world today, particularly in consumerist American culture, hospitality is seen as the pampering that rich people pay for. We might define it as ‘license for certain people to demand VIP treatment’. In the ‘church world’ of our Catholic parishes, we may dismiss the importance of hospitality because we think of it only in those secular terms.
However, in the deepest and most authentic sense of the word, hospitality is actually a crucial ingredient in the life of every parish. As the local presence of the universal Church, every Catholic parish “exists in order to evangelize” (Evangelii Nuntiandii). This means everything that we do, whether as the parish secretary or an usher at Sunday Mass, must ultimately work toward or flow from this purpose. Hospitality is not simply an option for us, or something detached from our identity as church; it’s a building block of the work of evangelism. For that reason, we must regain the sense that hospitality is ours as Catholic Christians, and then we must set about the audacious goal of doing it better than the secular world does.
Though references to hospitality are littered throughout all of Scripture, two particular images summarize well its importance (as it pertains to a parish). The first comes from the book of Acts, when a debate broke out in the church about how to respond to the many Gentiles who were coming to know Christ. James chimes in by saying “we ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God”. Other translations of this verse read ‘we should not make it difficult for [them]”. In his book Unwelcome, Jonathan Malm argues, “This isn’t about consumerism. It’s about courtesy- about hosting the people God sends to our churches. It is about caring for them enough to remove the barriers that might make them feel uncomfortable.”
The second image comes to us from the Church’s patron saint of hospitality. In the classic Rule of St. Benedict, Christ’s words in the Gospel of Matthew are echoed: “All guests to the monastery should be welcomed as Christ, because he will say, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in’” (Mt 25:35). After the foundational work of removing obstacles for our guests, we must set out to actively receive each person who walks through our doors as though Christ himself has come to us. Far from being a ‘luxury for the deserving’, welcoming guests becomes our sacred responsibility.
Every human heart longs for relationship and a sense of belonging. This need is so intrinsic to our human condition that we will seek it out without even realizing that we are actually searching for God. Football fanatics that flock to stadiums wearing their team’s colors experience the buzz of camaraderie with total strangers with an energy that the experience of going to church cannot touch. Why? If they experience a greater sense of welcoming, respect, and belonging in a stadium, why would we be surprised that it is where they spend their Sunday? As the secular standard of hospitality continues to escalate, fewer and fewer people will tolerate a mediocre, cold atmosphere. So, while people may be attracted to our church for various reasons, they will only stay if it becomes their spiritual home.
What does that mean for us this? Everything matters. To vamp up the hospitability in our parish, we look at tangibles of our environment: How does our office look? Signs, colors, furniture, art – all can affect how inviting a space seems to us. How does it smell? The olfactory system is connected with the emotional center of the brain, and some churches have a dusty, musty, old smell. Does your parish have an odor that says the opposite of ‘you will find life here’ And what does hospitality taste like?’ – what do you offer visitors? Water, coffee, fruit, candy? Anything?
However, these tangible externals only take us so far. Sarah Ehman conveys in A Life That Says Welcome that the condition of our hearts is more important than the condition of our home. Similarly, we can have an expensive, beautiful church and office space, but it can only enhance an atmosphere of welcoming- it cannot create personal connection on its own. That means that as staff and volunteers representing your church community, your attitude matters most. Your tone, your body language, your words can communicate, ‘We see you. We care for you. We will not leave you until your need is met’ – or it can say, ‘You are an interruption, a nuisance. You’re on your own’. Pope Francis himself throws down the challenge: “If we are to share our lives with others and generously give of ourselves, we also have to realize that every person is worthy of our giving. Not for their physical appearance, their abilities, their language, their way of thinking, or for any satisfaction that we might receive, but rather because they are God’s handiwork, his creation. God created that person in his image, and he or she reflects something of God’s glory” (Evangelii Gaudium).
Though the ‘internal work’ of welcoming others is not easy, it is simple. Small changes to the way we interact with others can make all the difference- smiling when we answer the phone, standing when a visitor walks in, walking a guest to the door of the pastor’s office instead of waving them off in the general direction; using words like, “How can I we bless you today?”, or “Don’t worry- let’s trust Jesus. We are not going to leave you until you’re with the right person”, or “I’m so sorry you’re experiencing such hurt. Would you like me to pray with you?” We can make the difference between interacting once with a stranger whom we never see again, or softening a heart to be won to Christ forever. Hospitality matters.