A few years ago, not long after my husband and I had moved from the city where we raised our children, I found myself standing in the back of church after Mass, anxious to leave, waiting for my husband who was talking with a new acquaintance. In the midst of the move, I had become disconnected from the community of faith. The following week, I called the choir director of our new parish, explained that my schedule is very haphazard, and wondered if I might help with the choir in some way. The director, Yvonne, welcomed me to sing, whenever I was in town, for rehearsals even if I was not going to be at the parish on Sunday, or on Sunday, even if I had been gone during rehearsal. Occasionally, after a long time away, I would pray as part of the assembly at Sunday Mass, and Yvonne would find me afterwards, asking why I had not joined the choir for the day. She built a bridge for me, connecting me to the community and more deeply to Christ, through her warm and welcoming ministry, and for that, I am deeply grateful.
In the past five years, I have often used the image of a bridge, and our call to be bridge builders, when speaking of evangelization. It’s an image that “works:” people immediately understand what it means to build a bridge to another, and they appreciate the connection to pontifex, the Latin word from which our English word “pope” comes. The pope is a bridge builder – he connects our faith in Jesus Christ, apostolic tradition, and living discipleship in our current time, and so must we.
Recently, during a well-attended workshop at the International Catholic Stewardship Council’s annual conference, I asked participants how they, or how might they, build the bridges of welcome, friendship and sharing. The room buzzed with conversation. One participant, a Dominican brother who serves at a campus ministry parish, shared the story of a young woman who had discovered Catholicism through other students at the university and is now participating in the RCIA; a woman shared the story of her son, who in a recent move experienced the welcome of a local gym, and how she wished we could learn from their practices in extending welcome to newcomers; a pastor shared that his parish is commissioning “disciples of mercy” who are attentive to the needs of friends and acquaintances, looking for opportunities to bridge them to, or back to, Christ and the Church through the parish community.
I am sure for every cluster of participants, similar stories were told, which gives me hope, and convinces me even more that we have many positive, life-giving parish practices already in place. In a homily in May, 2013, Pope Francis said, “The Lord made bridges… Christians who are afraid to build bridges and prefer to build walls are Christians who are not sure of their faith, not sure of Jesus Christ… Build bridges and move forward.” There is much to be learned from his admonishment. Perhaps this is a lens through which we might consider any new or existing practice or policy: will this be experienced as a bridge or as a wall? If it feels like a wall, how might adjustments be made in order to draw people closer to God, to live more deeply as disciples, or to be sent forth to share the Good News with others?
Leisa Anslinger is the Director of Catholic Life and Faith, a resource center for pastoral leaders in evangelization and catechesis, stewardship, parish engagement, and strengths based leadership development.