One of the slogans in the Catholic Church in the United States today is “All Are Welcome!” I hate to be a party pooper, but I wonder what this wholesome marketing slogan actually means in practice.

In a Catholic culture, like Pope Francis’ Argentina, “All Are Welcome” means something very different from a multicultural, multifaith, essentially Protestant country like the United States.

In a Catholic country, it is assumed that the vast majority of the population is Catholic. It is assumed that most have been baptized and have had at least a minimum of Catholic teaching on faith and morals. To say, “All are welcome” in a Catholic country is to open our doors, our hearts and our arms to our prodigal sons and daughters.

However, I suspect for some U.S. Catholics the slogan “All Are Welcome” is shorthand for a politically correct, morally ambiguous agenda.

This sort of progressive ideology is built on the shifting sands of relativism. Along with the happy desire to include everyone is a mindset that (even if unconscious) avoids all moral judgments and encourages a “values-free” approach to life. The subtext of “All Are Welcome” can sometimes be: “It doesn’t matter what you believe or how you behave. Just come on in!”

The slogan “All Are Welcome,” therefore, raises some important questions about ecclesiology. For those who scratch their heads over long, churchy-sounding words, “ecclesiology” is the theology and theory of the Church. In other words, “What is the Church?”

The Catechism teaches:

“At all times and in every race, anyone who fears God and does what is right has been acceptable to him. He has, however, willed to make men holy and save them, not as individuals without any bond or link between them, but rather to make them into a people who might acknowledge him and serve him in holiness” (781).

We must agree then, that all are welcome, but we go on to ask, “What are they welcome to?” All are welcome to become members of the people of God. All are welcome to have faith in Jesus Christ and to “acknowledge him and serve him in holiness.” 

The Catechism goes on to define what it means to belong to the Catholic Church:

“The People of God is marked by characteristics that clearly distinguish it from all other religious, ethnic, political or cultural groups found in history. … One becomes a member of this people not by a physical birth, but by being ‘born anew,’ … that is, by faith in Christ and baptism. The status of this people is that of the dignity and freedom of the sons of God. … Its mission is to be salt of the earth and light of the world. … Its destiny is the kingdom of God, which has been begun by God himself on earth and which must be further extended until it has been brought to perfection by him at the end of time.”

All are welcome, therefore, to repent, be baptized, have faith in Jesus Christ and become what Sherry Weddell calls “intentional disciples.” It is no mistake that the word “disciple” is related to the word “discipline.” Both come from the Latin discipulus, which means “learner.” The word “discipline” nowadays usually carries with it a connotation of harshness and even physical punishment. However, “discipline” is best seen as the normal mixture of self-control, education and guidance from a master that is required for any great accomplishment.

If you wish to play Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto one day, then you must be a disciplined student of the piano. You must learn to read music, take lessons, practice your scales and submit much of your life to the task. If you wish to win an Olympic gold medal, then you must control every aspect of your life and discipline yourself daily to achieve your great goal.

So it is with being a Catholic.

Jesus welcomes all. He loves us just as we are. However, he loves us too much to leave us that way. All the baptized are called to become saints, and this supreme human achievement requires constant, lifelong discipline in total obedience to Our Lord and master, Jesus Christ.

It would be a false gospel to suppose that this calling is all happiness, sweetness and light. Just as a coach warns his athletes that training will be grueling, so Jesus says,

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, even their own life — such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

And he reminds us, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

All are indeed welcome: welcome to join us in this arduous adventure — this great and glorious calling to step out of the boat, walk on the waves and be a true disciple of Jesus Christ.

Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the

Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.

Follow him at DwightLongenecker.com.