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.”