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: The Pell case: Developments down under

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In three weeks, a panel of senior judges will hear Cardinal George Pell’s appeal of the unjust verdict rendered against him at his retrial in March, when he was convicted of “historical sexual abuse.” That conviction did not come close to meeting the criterion of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is fundamental to criminal law in any rightly-ordered society. The prosecution offered no corroborating evidence sustaining the complainant’s charge. The defense demolished the prosecution’s case, as witness after witness testified that the alleged abuse simply could not have happened under the circumstances charged — in a busy cathedral after Mass, in a secured space.

Yet the jury, which may have ignored instructions from the trial judge as to how evidence should be construed, returned a unanimous verdict of guilty. At the cardinal’s sentencing, the trial judge never once said that he agreed with the jury’s verdict; he did say, multiple times, that he was simply doing what the law required him to do. Cardinal Pell’s appeal will be just as devastating to the prosecution’s case as was his defense at both his first trial (which ended with a hung jury, believed to have favored acquittal) and the retrial. What friends of the cardinal, friends of Australia, and friends of justice must hope is that the appellate judges will get right what the retrial jury manifestly got wrong.

That will not be easy, for the appellate judges will have been subjected to the same public and media hysteria over Cardinal Pell that was indisputably a factor in his conviction on charges demonstrated to be, literally, incredible. Those appellate judges will also know, however, that the reputation of the Australian criminal justice system is at stake in this appeal. And it may be hoped that those judges will display the courage and grit in the face of incoming fire that the rest of the Anglosphere has associated with “Australia” since the Gallipoli campaign in World War I.

In jail for two months now, the cardinal has displayed a remarkable equanimity and good cheer that can only come from a clear conscience. The Melbourne Assessment Prison allows its distinguished prisoner few visitors, beyond his legal team; but those who have gone to the prison intending to cheer up a friend have, in correspondence with me, testified to having found themselves cheered and consoled by Cardinal Pell — a man whose spiritual life was deeply influenced by the examples of Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More during Henry VIII’s persecution of the Church in 16th-century England. The impact of over a half-century of reflection on those epic figures is now being displayed to Cardinal Pell’s visitors and jailers, during what he describes as his extended “retreat.”

Around the world, and in Australia itself, calmer spirits than those baying for George Pell’s blood (and behaving precisely like the deranged French bigots who cheered when the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus was condemned to a living death on Devil’s Island) have surfaced new oddities — to put it gently — surrounding the Pell Case.

How is it, for example, that the complainant’s description of the sexual assault he alleges Cardinal Pell committed bears a striking resemblance — to put it gently, again — to an incident of clerical sexual abuse described in Rolling Stone in 2011? How is it that edited transcripts of a post-conviction phone conversation between the cardinal and his cathedral master of ceremonies (who had testified to the sheer physical impossibility of the charges against Pell being true) got into the hands (and thence into the newspaper writing) of a reporter with a history of anti-Pell bias and polemic? What is the web of relationships among the virulently anti-Pell sectors of the Australian media, the police in the state of Victoria, and senior Australian political figures with longstanding grievances against the politically incorrect George Pell? What is the relationship between the local Get Pell gang and those with much to lose from his efforts to clean up the Vatican’s finances?

And what is the state of serious investigative journalism in Australia, when these matters are only investigated by small-circulation journals and independent researchers?

An “unsafe” verdict in Australia is one a jury could not rationally have reached. Friends of truth must hope that the appellate judges, tuning out the mob, will begin to restore safety and rationality to public life Down Under in June.

Featured image by CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images