Reading over Melinda Selmys’s thoughtful reflection on “Christmas and Easter Catholics,” those who only show up on the pews twice a year, I was reminded of something a priest I know says almost every year in his homily at Christmas and Easter:
“Please make room in the pews for all the extra people and if you can’t sit in your usual place, don’t worry. There will be plenty of empty seats next week.”
I’ve also heard this variation:
“Where are you people the rest of the year?”
Some people laugh.
Besides making rare church-goers feel self-conscious and awkward, statements like that send a message that is both inaccurate and misguided, which is: Mass attendance can be a sometime thing, so don’t sweat it. Missing Mass is really something to joke about, right?
First, no it isn’t. In the teaching of the church, intentionally skipping Mass is still (whether you want to believe it or not) gravely sinful. You should sweat it. From the catechism:
The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.
Folks need to be reminded that Mass is an obligation—but, more than that, it is an opportunity. It’s a chance to grow in grace, and connect with a community. It offers an opportunity to receive Christ in the Eucharist, to worship as one body, to transcend the ordinary and to dwell, for just a little while, in heaven.
And lest we forget: The Mass is the greatest prayer on earth. We need to remember that. It seems to me that people who come to Mass infrequently also need to be reminded, gently, that this is part of the fabric of Being Catholic; we need to give them more reasons to come back—not reasons to stay away.
Secondly, that kind of statement peddles the notion that there are two classes of Catholics: the good, faithful Mass goers, and everybody else. No. We are all the Body of Christ—a fumbling and flawed collection of sinners trying, with mixed success, to be saved.
What are we doing to help make that happen?
As Melinda puts it:
The Christian response, therefore, to the spiritually homeless who pour into our churches on Christmas day should not be one of disdain and self-congratulation. We shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back for being among the few who will still be in the pews next Sunday. Rather, we should ask ourselves how we can help welcome people home so they will be drawn to stay. Many priests offer welcome in their Christmas homilies, but the openness that is extended from the pulpit needs to be put into action by the laity if it’s going to bear fruit. This means that alongside the corporal works of mercy that we perform during the Christmas season, we should also reflect on how we can perform the spiritual works of mercy in order to comfort and shelter those whose souls are in exile.
Many of us are in exile, in one way or another. And to a good many, a warm church on a cold morning is a refuge and, for an hour, a consolation. All of us should strive to make that hour matter—not only for ourselves but also for others, our fellow exiles, traveling along life’s highway.
The road is long. The trip is hard. In this Year of Mercy, let’s try to make the journey a little easier for one another.
Preachers, it’s simple: this Christmas, welcome all who come through the doors with joy and love and gratitude.
And then let your message give them a reason to want to return next Sunday.
Photo: Jeffrey Bruno