Our diocese is in the middle of the Catholics Come Home initiative - a television campaign to encourage inactive Catholics to come back to the Church. Some probably responded at Christmas to this persuasive outreach. Well-made and attractive televistion commercials are designed to attract Catholics - and those interested in becoming Catholic - through a variety of methods, from creating a "warm, fuzzy" feeling about the Church as institution, to asking people to evaluate their lives to see if they want to change, to hearing the witness of those who came back. If you are not familiar with this initiative, which has been adopted in several areas of the country, please go to Catholics Come Home Website. The videos will begin streaming as you arrive.
Even if you are not in an are of the country where these commercials are running, was what happened at your parish over the Masses of Christmas of high enough quality to make the inactive, occasionally active, or the curious feel like coming back next Sunday? Most likely, yes. Parishes normally put their best foot forward on Christmas and Easter - art and environment ministers decoratedthe church with their best flair, ushers and greeters - inspired by holiday warmth - smiled even at people they did not know, musicians highly rehearsed and best musical offerings, the best lectors were assigned to read the important scriptures of the Incarnation, the priest in many parishes will have normally had a concelebrant or two to add to the sense of pomp and circumstance. Consciencious preachers labored over their best homilies - inspired, in many cases, to reach people in a deeper way. What people encountered was probably warm, familiar and if the homilist was at his best, gently challenging.
Now the greater question - can your parish sustain this sense of hospitality, warmth, and appropriate challenge all year 'round? Is the Good News of Jesus Christ delivered in an attractive enough way to encourage people to give up sleeping late, shopping, hanging out with their family in a more casual way, or just plain taking a "free time" breather from their busy week. Are all liturgical ministers performing their duties in a welcoming and quality manner - or is it time for a training refresher for lectors who have forgotten the importance of preparing beforehand or how to enunciate so all can hear? How about the cantor/songleaders who fail to truly invite people to sing and who normally keep their eyes buried in the music, who only looked up at Christmas because they have known the words to the familiar carols all their lives? Do your greeters look for and engage the stranger as well as their friends every weekend? Is your pastor habitually a good preacher, or does he usually convey a slight sense of weariness, boredom or complacency? Is the bulletin filled every week with news of great opportunities for people to connect with the community, share faith, and serve those in need? And after the liturgy, is it easy for people to find someone to talk to about other issues? If they call the parish office during the week will they be greated in a warm and sensitive way - and will their interactions around religious education, sacramental and other issues be inviting and not off-putting?
To assist in evaluating and fine-tuning your parish to live up to its best, I highly recommend the resources from the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association - created by those who helped write the USCCB national plan for evangelization, "Go and Make Disciples". The Awakening Faith resource helps welcome and evangelize inactive Catholics. Their monthly Evangelization Exchange newsletter is filled with good ideas, and they also have many other materials, including this series of pamphlets on the Eucharistic Community. I have posted many of their faith-sharing handouts (including an evaluation instrument called the "Full and Active Participation in the Mass Checklist for Parish Leaders" on this page on our diocesan site. Their Best Practices for Parishes sub-site features a great program designed by Fr. Robert Duggan with tools to evaluate and renovate every ministry in the parish.
Whether your parish uses these or other programs, it is important not to be complacent about your community and the face it presents to the outsider. Welcoming strangers should be a priority, not an afterthought. After all, Jesus was all about outreach. So, also, should we be.