National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

‘You Welcomed Me’

The Blessings of Catholic Hospitality

BY Eddie O'Neill

March 23-April 5, 2014 Issue | Posted 3/23/14 at 6:25 AM

 

Hospitality has a long tradition in the Catholic faith.

Pope Francis spoke of it last November, telling new Catholics: "God did not create us to be alone, closed in on ourselves, but to be able to meet him and to open us to a meeting with others."

He has also extended it to the many people he meets and helps, from the disabled to the homeless.

The Bible also has a lot to say about being hospitable.

In the Old Testament, numerous verses speak of the importance of opening one’s door to travelers or providing a meal for the weary. For example, in the Book of Leviticus, it states:

"You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you; you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt. I, the Lord, am your God" (19:34).

In the New Testament, Jesus said that loving one’s neighbor is key to being his disciple. In the Gospel of Matthew, Christ states:

"Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; a stranger, and you welcomed me; naked, and you clothed me; ill, and you cared for me; in prison, and you visited me’" (25: 34-34).

St. Peter also addresses this concept in his first letter to the early Church: "Show hospitality to one another without grumbling" (4:9).

The Scriptures are the inspiration for a number of orthodox movements or organizations that have embraced the call to welcome all.

 

Monastery Movement

In the sixth century, there were no motels or fast-food restaurants to take care of travelers; but there were monasteries. These houses of prayer were the welcome centers of their day.

They took on that mission due to the inspiration and work of an Italian monk, St. Benedict (ca. 480-547). He is often called the founder of the monastic movement in the West. His rule brought men together in community, prayer and common work.

According to Benedictine Father Thomas Leitner, administrator of the St. Benedict Center in Schuyler, Neb., the welcoming spirit is very much at the heart of Benedict’s rule.

The monastery became the place where the world and prayer met, he said.

"Benedict was convinced that all guests arriving at the monastery were Christ in disguise," Father Leitner explained.

In the Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 53, Benedict writes that the superior of the community or one of the brothers should meet the guests who arrive with all charitable service.

"He had a special place for the poor," the priest added. "Today, that often translates to welcoming those who are spiritually poor."

At the St. Benedict Center, there is a community of 10 Benedictine monks who welcome and serve more than 13,000 guests who visit their retreat center each year.

According to Father Leitner, the center’s guest book is full of appreciative comments, such as: "I was treated like a welcomed and valued guest. I was made to feel special." "Everyone was very hospitable." "I was treated as a guest, with grace and kindness."

Father Leitner says the center is blessed to have dedicated co-workers who "give a welcoming attitude."

 

Houses of Hospitality

In the 1930s, during the height of the Great Depression, Servant of God Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin gave the idea of welcoming the poor a new spirit.

Day was a Benedictine Oblate. Her canonization cause was advanced by the U.S. bishops in 2012.

Maurin was a poor French emigrant who came to Canada in 1909 and eventually made his way to New York City. He worked hard-labor jobs and spent many nights in flop houses, which shaped his philosophy. He wrote, "The way to reach the man on the street is to meet the man of the street."

In 1932, he met Day, a Catholic convert and freelance journalist.

The two started a newspaper, which would come to be known as The Catholic Worker (and later the name of the movement itself). Their mission was to promote Catholic social teaching.

In his newspaper essays, Maurin often advocated for the renewal of the Christian practice of hospitality.

Chicago native Karl Meyers met Day in 1957 and has been part of the Catholic Worker Movement ever since.

"Maurin’s vision for hospitality was that everyone should have a ‘Christ room’ and every parish a ‘house of hospitality,’" stated Meyers. "He would give up his coat and his bed for homeless folks off the street. Dorothy was inspired by this real holiness."

It wasn’t too long after meeting Day that Meyers started a house of hospitality near the now-infamous Cabrini-Green housing project on Chicago’s South Side.

"I bought a little storefront for $50 and started taking people in," Meyers told the Register. "We had one sink and one toilet."

He and his wife ran the house for 13 years. These days, Meyers is in charge of a Catholic Worker house in Nashville, Tenn. Today, there are more than 200 Catholic Worker communities in the United States and more than 25 houses around the world, all staffed by volunteers.

According to Meyer, the homes welcome the needy as they are. Volunteers and residents work hand-in-hand in a family-like setting.

He said, "What made Dorothy Day’s vision unique at that time was that it was the laity who ran this ministry."

 

Coming Home

Fast-forward 60 years, and the welcoming spirit of the Church has entered the modern-media age.

Just ask Madgie Winch of Farmington, Mo.

A few years ago, Winch saw an ad on TV inviting her to come home to the Catholic Church. It sparked a new hope within her.

The ad was from a nonprofit group called Catholics Come Home, which uses mass-media outreach to evangelize fallen-away Catholics and others who are interested in learning more about the Church.

She had been away from the Church for decades. The mother of three was divorced and didn’t feel worthy to come back to the Church of her youth.

"I was at such a low point in my life when I listened to those ads, and it inspired me to make an appointment with Father Rickey Valleroy," she shared.

In her time away from the Church, Winch said she never stopped praying and believing and made sure her children went to religion classes and Mass.

"I did try other churches, but never felt the Holy Spirit there," she said.

Winch told Father Valleroy, pastor of St. Joseph parish, about her annulment to her first husband. He assured her that she could come back to the Church.

"I was so happy. A burden was lifted. I could receive holy Communion."

It is a story that Tom Peterson, founder of Catholics Come Home, has heard time and time again.

"At the heart of these TV ads is the message that the Catholic Church is a big family, God has a plan, and they are welcomed back," Peterson said. "If we get them in the door," Peterson explained, "the Holy Spirit will do the rest."

The apostolate runs many ads during Lent and Easter, in addition to Advent and Christmas. The group also just launched GoodConfession.com to encourage people to frequent the sacrament of reconciliation.

Peterson told the Register that, so often, it is the little things that a parish can do that make the Church hospitable for those who are returning.

"It is the greeter at the door who recognizes a familiar face, a smile in the pew or a priest at the pulpit who tells the congregation that he will be easy with them in the confessional," Peterson explained.

At St. Joseph’s, Winch feels welcome. Since meeting with Father Valleroy, she hasn’t missed a Sunday Mass.

Winch cannot put her finger on one event that defined such welcome, noting it was the combination of the greeters at the door each Sunday, the variety of parish activities and the beautiful liturgies that have all brought her home: "The Church welcomed me home."

Eddie O’Neill writes from

Rolla, Missouri.