What does the momentous visit of Pope Francis to the United States mean for the Church going forward? How can parishes leverage this powerful pastoral visit into a furtherance of our common missional agenda to evangelize? Having followed his words and actions carefully, and also listening closely to some of the cultural reaction (religious and secular), I’d like to offer the following insights. (I imagine these applying primarily in the parish setting, though they could be just as apt in diocesan systems.)
1. Every parish in the nation should engage immediately in two actions: #1. Proactively consider how to incarnate the model and exhortations of Pope Francis into action; and #2. Consider how the parish will intentionally ready itself when, not if, the “Francis effect” comes to its door, in whatever form. I suggest that parish leadership gather as soon as possible to begin to discuss these two pastoral considerations with an eye on the remarkable evangelizing opportunity the Pope has handed us.
In the Church these days, we worry about evangelization. We design programs, we train our people, we read and write and talk about it, we pray about it, we form e-teams. But there are very small, simple but important changes we can make in our churches that can take away the obstacles that may have been erected over time, that block our evangelization efforts. For instance: When visitors walk in the doors to your church, what do they see?
I recently visited a church where, upon walking in the main door, I was met by the backs of the liturgical ministers. They were huddled in the entryway, chatting about the business of who would serve at each station for Communion. I had to wind my way through the group of them to reach the cart with the missalettes on it, and then swim back between them to find a seat in the sanctuary. I caught myself apologizing to the people as I walked in front of them.
For me, as a "churchy" person, this is annoying but not a deal-breaker. I wouldn’t turn and walk out if I came into this setting, nor would I turn and slink into the sanctuary bookless, hoping I’d be able to keep up without it. But this would be a very discouraging start if I were new in town, or I was feeling some embarrassment about being there after a long absence, or I was thinking of joining a new parish.
In our city the stoplights have signs hanging on them that remind drivers “don’t block the box!” They are there to remind drivers that the intersections should be kept clear to allow for free through-travel of emergency vehicles. I think it’s a good rule in our churches too. Don’t be an obstacle between worshipers and the sanctuary. Don’t block the path between the doors and the books, or the books and the sanctuary. Make it physically and emotionally easy for people to enter the worship space.
Indeed, the entryway is the natural place for ministers to gather before the procession. But anyone in that space should be facing the doors, smiling and saying hello to each person. Hospitality must be considered part of the responsibilities of all liturgical ministers. If a conversation needs to happen about the Mass plans, be sure it happens to the side or in the sacristy. No Mass "business" is as crucial as the business of welcoming people to the table.
At the NCCL conference in Buffalo, Dr. Tim Hogan presented a keynote, Encountering Who? The Gift of the Cultural Hurricane: How to build Bridges that Empower Parents and Transform Catholic Families. A facilitated conversation with evangelization leaders followed asking the question, “What are the gifts in the cultural hurricane and how can we respond?”
The conversation began with leaders from Texas and Florida, those who live in areas where hurricanes occur. They recalled their experience of hurricanes, sharing it is not the destruction of the hurricane remembered, but the gift of gathering, the communal aspect resulting that is life-giving, significant and remembered before during and after the hurricane.
From this starting point, the group reflected on and began answering the following question: “If a real hurricane can bring about communal gifts, can a cultural hurricane bring about similar gifts?” Collectively hospitality, hope and healing were discovered to be the gifts of the cultural hurricane.
The following is a synopsis of our discussion on the cultural hurricane and some suggestions on how we might respond in our faith communities.