This is my homily for the vigil Mass at a parish in Colorado Springs, where the "Catholics Come Home" campaign just began. I started with a show of hands in response to some questions.
How many of you tend to sit in the same general space when you come to Mass?
(almost all of the 400+ folks raised their hands - there was some light laughter)
How many of you have been coming to Mass more than a year, 5 years, 10 years, 20 years?
(I was amazed to find that almost a quarter of the (generally older) congregation had been coming for 20 years)
How many of you recognize the person sitting nearest you (not your family)
(about a third raised their hands)
How many of you know their name?
(fewer hands were raised)
How many of you made eye contact with them before this moment?
(still fewer hands came up)
Why do I ask these pointed questions? Because people over the next few months will be “coming home,” as a consequence of the Catholics Come Home advertisements on TV. What will your response be to them? You can’t expect the pastor and the staff to catch them and greet them and make them feel welcome.
We know there will be extra people here next Friday for Christmas Mass. What will your response be? Will you be upset that the parking lot’s crowded, or that you need to get here an hour early for a seat? Will you hope they don't stick around after the holidays?
Those commercials are aimed at Catholics who have left the Church and are now “unchurched,” – not affiliated with any other religion. A Pew Foundation study in 2008-9 found that those who left the Catholic Church and became unaffiliated did so for different reasons.
71% “drifted away gradually.” So for them to come back requires a real decision – it may feel very risky. They may not stand up at the beginning of Mass and say, “I live in Colorado Springs, and have been away from the Church for 25 years.”
One of the Catholics Come Home videos speak of the Church as a family. And for those of us on the “inside,” who’ve been part of this parish for years, who are involved in ministries, who know people by name, that may be what it feels like. But for the person coming back, that’s not the case. Imagine if you were here for the first time and your child wanted to go to the bathroom. How would you know where they are? They’re not clearly marked! You have to be an “insider” to know. To have to ask where they are shows you are an “outsider.”
Once Sherry, my co-director and I were at a parish for a workshop, and we decided to go to a pancake breakfast the Knights of Columbus were offering the next morning after Sunday Mass. We showed up, saw a large sign in front of the Church welcoming the public to the breakfast. The only problem was, we had no idea where it was being held. The location wasn't mentioned, and after walking around awhile looking for an indication of where to go (or hoping for a whiff of pancakes and sausage), we asked a parishioner where we would find the breakfast.
"Oh, that's easy! Just go outside and follow the sidewalk about half-way down the block. In between the Church and the gradeschool, you'll see a passageway that links the two. Go through the door in the middle of that, go down the hall, take the third door on the right, go down the stairs, turn right, and follow that hallway to the second door into the school dining hall."
Need I say we would have never found it on our own?
(a few hours before Mass, the pastor had called to inform me that members of different ministries had signed up to be official "welcomers" of Catholics who might be returning. Those people will wear a blue badge with their name, and parishioners had been instructed to direct potential returnees with questions to those individuals. By the way, during the homily I asked those folks to raise their hands. Only one fellow was the designated "friendly, helpful parishioner. I mention this to explain my next paragraph)
One of my pet peeves with Church practice is we tend to delegate too much responsibility to others.
It is not enough to say to yourself, “the designated greeters with the badges will greet any returning Catholics.” It’s YOUR job.
In our first reading tonight he prophet Micah foretold the homecoming of exiles from Babylon. What he didn’t mention was that those who already lived in the Promised Land weren’t too happy about the newcomers. We can expect people to be returning from a kind of exile – and we have to try to imagine the courage it may take some of them to just go through these doors. What kind of response will you give them? Your acknowledging their existence may make all the difference in the world – the difference between them staying, and drifting away again.
Often when I give a Saturday workshop, I attend the vigil Mass at the parish. Normally I am able to get there just before Mass begins, and sometimes I don't concelebrate, particularly if the pastor hasn't met me yet. On those occasions, people almost never greet me in the pews - and I'm wearing a habit, so I kind of stick out as a "visitor."
Why don’t we acknowledge others at Mass? I think there are a variety of reasons.
1) Mass is my quiet time, my prayer time
2) I don’t want to get involved in someone else’s life and problems
3) I don’t want to be too forward – get in their space
4) The Bronco’s kickoff’s in an hour
Let's face it; the bottom line in all these reasons are the same - they’re not important enough to us.
In the Pew study on religion in America: 43% of those who left the Catholic Church and became “unaffiliated,” said they left because their “spiritual needs were not met” – I’d love to know what those needs were, but I bet at least some of them had to do with not having a community – not having Christian disciples who spoke about their relationship with Jesus and what it meant to them. What if those unmet needs had nothing to do with the style of worship or the quality of the music or preaching? What if it had to do with the fact that they felt they had to try to follow Jesus completely on their own?
That wasn’t the case with Elizabeth. She didn’t have to go through her pregnancy alone because Mary took the dangerous four-day journey to go to her side. Elizabeth and the infant in her womb are overjoyed at Mary’s arrival. Three times Mary is pronounced “blessed.” Two closely related reasons are given by Elizabeth’s for calling Mary “blessed”:
1. her faith (v. 45), which leads to her obedience, and
2. her bearing of the Christ child (v. 42).??
Mary is blessed, not for what she is in herself, but in relation to the incarnation.
The same is true for us. If we are blessed, it is because we have faith in Jesus and are willing to be obedient to him, as he was obedient always to His Father. That obedience requires that we have concern for others. We are our brother and sister’s keeper. Not everyone who cries out, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom, but only those who do the will of the Father. That is, worship alone, or saying you're a Christian alone, isn't sufficient for salvation. The author of Hebrews puts these words on Jesus' lips: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,? but a body you prepared for me; ?in holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight. ?Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll,? behold, I come to do your will.”
It is one of the most important passages in Hebrews, for it defines Christ’s sacrifice as the offering of his body (that is, the instrument of his will) in obedience to his Father.?? This self-offering, says the author of Hebrews, quoting Ps. 40, is the whole reason of the incarnation.
Jesus says our final judgment will be based on how we offer ourselves to his Father's will in response to the grace offered us through His cross. Our judgment is connected to how we treated the lost and the least: the hungry, naked, thirsty, imprisoned, sick – in short, the stranger. How will you offer yourselves to the strangers who will be attempting to “come home”?
Finally, 65% of those who left the Church and became unaffiliated with organized religion “stopped believing in Church teaching” (nearly 60% took issue with the Church's teaching on abortion and homosexuality; 50% regarding birth control, and 40% over the status of women in the Church). Well, nothing has changed there.
Those who had those issues when they left may well have them when they return. So perhaps simply re-iterating the Church's teaching may not be the first place to start. Perhaps what we need to focus on first is a more personal witnessing to our faith. Specifically, witnessing to the effect that Jesus has had on our lives; why we trust him. Because if I don't trust him, why should I trust, or take seriously what the Church founded by him proposes as flowing from what he has revealed?
We need to be able to explain to those who are "coming home" why we are here, week after week? We need to be able to tell others – especially people who may be coming back after an absence, what difference Jesus makes in our lives.
For me, these are the differences.
Anytime I look at the crucifix, I am invited to remember how much He loves me, and what He went through for me. As Hebrews says, his will, expressed in the actions of his body, was conformed to the Father’s will in all things. He was obedient for me. And all this was so I could be with Him in eternity. That helps give me perspective, especially when I think my life’s not going well. It helps me acknowledge that I’m loved - even when I have sinned.
At the same time, I have been able to change! I experience Jesus’ grace helping me overcome temptation and sin – even sins I might have struggled with a long time.
His teaching and example of courage evoke in me not just admiration, but a desire to follow him; even to become more like him. He’s my hero. And I ask him for guidance in particular situations - and, as my relationship grows with him, I ask him more and more often for guidance. I am trying to cooperate with his help in being more generous than I would have otherwise – out of obedience to him.
Finally, in him I discover reasons for hopefulness when the world seems irredeemable.
The little town of Bethlehem-Ephrathah might have seemed insignificant to the ancient Jews, but from it would come a king with an everlasting reign. You might think yourself insignificant, and your genuine interest in someone “coming home,” as insignificant – but that is not the case – not to the one who otherwise would be unwelcomed, left companionless, ignored and forgotten. You are not insignificant, if you, like Mary, let the Christ dwell in you – and bring him to others.
Do that, and you are blessed, indeed.
When the "Catholics Come Home" campaign was run in the diocese of Phoenix, some 90,000 people showed up at parishes throughout the diocese. So when we discover people who are returning to church, for perhaps the first time in years, are we going to send them all to the gentleman sitting in the third pew from the back who happens to be wearing a blue badge?
For his sake, and for the sake of those attempting to return - and for our sake - I certainly hope not!