How to welcome Christmas Catholics

Julie Filby

Every Christmas, churches fill beyond capacity with congregations made up of weekly Mass-goers, “Christmas Catholics,” Christians on-the-fence, lapsed Catholics, non-believers and everyone in between.

Infrequent Mass-goers don’t always know the words to prayers during Mass, some don’t realize preparing for the liturgy is generally best done in silence, and others are not accustomed to genuflecting, making the sign of the cross or other active parts of prayer.

Instead of approaching the scenario with an “us and them” mentality, regular pew sitters are encouraged to greet guests with warmth and courtesy, regardless of how many punches they may—or may not—have on their Mass card.

“At Christmas, one out of three people attending Mass will be coming for their once-a-year visit to church because of a tug on their heart to go back to the roots of their faith, or a sense of obligation,” said Irene Lindemer, director of communications at St. Thomas More Parish in Centennial.

“What a great opportunity,” she added. “Maybe we’ll touch their hearts and they’ll realize how beautiful the faith is.”

Nearly all Americans, 95 percent, celebrate Christmas and of these, slightly more than half described the holiday as “strongly religious” for them, according to a 2010 Gallup poll, continuing an upward trend observed over 20 years. The poll found of the majority incorporating religion into their holiday celebration, 62 percent attended services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

Lindemer and the parish staff began asking: How will we welcome these guests?

“Will we be upset that they took our parking place? Or that they are sitting in ‘our’ pew?” she said. “Do we feel superior because we are here every Sunday and they only come once a year?”

That’s not an uncommon response, said Msgr. Thomas Fryar, pastor at St. Thomas More Parish.

“We almost always react at first with why it shouldn’t happen that way,” he said, “as opposed to letting God’s grace and blessing take us to where we may not normally go.”

Maybe the “regulars” in a congregation should ask a different question, he continued, such as: What could be done differently so that these annual visitors come more often?

“We are responsible for the lives of our brothers and sisters,” he said. “What are we doing to let them know they really are welcome at the table of the Lord?”

This year, St. Thomas More Parish is launching an initiative dubbed “Making Room in the Inn” to welcome everyone that makes up the Christmas congregation. The campaign will include banners, posters, luminaries and carolers dressed as shepherds to greet people upon their arrival; outdoor greeters and parking attendants to help car and foot traffic navigate the active setting and find both a parking spot and a seat; everyone will receive a program and a gift; and a special invitation will be extended to guests to sit in the church to allow them to fully experience the liturgy.

At the most-attended Christmas Eve Mass, a 4 p.m. liturgy that draws 3,000 to the church that holds about 1,000, three live Masses, instead of video streams, will be celebrated: in the church, the neighboring parish hall (McCallin Hall) and the school gym.

“Rather than sitting in your ‘regular spot’ in the church, (we’re asking weekly parishioners to) sit in McCallin Hall or the school gym so our visitors can sit in the church,” suggested Lindemer, or to come to a different Mass that typically has seating such as Midnight Mass or early Christmas Day. “Imagine if each of us did something extra this Christmas at church, what a difference we could make.”

This type of hospitality isn’t unique to the Centennial parish, Msgr. Fryar said, but is offered at other parishes as well.

“Hopefully what we’re seeing is part of the reflection of what is in the hearts and minds of Catholics all over the world,” he said, “as we prepare to not only welcome our Lord and the celebration of this birth at Christmas but also as we prepare to welcome our brothers and sisters in the family of God.”

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA