A Sea of New Faces — Welcoming the Stranger at Mass

How the term "C E Catholic" doesn't recognize the Holy Spirit working in others.

Pope Francis baptizes catechumens during the Easter Vigil Mass at St. Peter's Basilica on March 26, 2016.
Pope Francis baptizes catechumens during the Easter Vigil Mass at St. Peter's Basilica on March 26, 2016. (photo: Martha Calderon/Catholic News Agency)

While cradle Catholics have shared experiences from their childhood they all can relate to, Catholic converts have their own as well. For most converts, their reception into the Catholic  Church during Easter Vigil is one of those main unifying events we share with each other. Easter isn’t just the celebration of the Risen Lord, but it’s also a birthday to many converts around the world.

Easter is the season that fills me with the most joy because it is our reward from the sufferings of Lent and the celebration of Christ’s triumph over death. All things begin anew and that is why during this time of year we welcome converts into the fold. It’s also a time when many fallen away Catholics choose to revert back home to the Church. And for me, it’s my 13th birthday as a Catholic.

Why then, during such a profound and beautiful liturgical part of the year do we choose to not extend that same welcome to Catholics who are commonly referred to as “C & E Catholics?” The derogatory term refers to Catholics who seemingly only go to Church two times a year, Christmas and Easter. It’s uncharitable, demeaning, and denies the influence and workings of the Holy Spirit in the lives of others.   

Aside from the facts that we simply cannot assume how often someone else goes to Mass and that most people travel during major holidays, many converts and reverts start their journeys as C & E Catholics.

As a teen I was a C & E Catholic, going only to Mass with my paternal Abuela during the “big” holidays out of nothing more than obligation. But that obligation planted the seeds for my total conversion into the Church as an adult. And from the seeds of my own conversion, my maternal grandmother reverted back to Catholicism on her deathbed.  As a result, a year later my mother made her confession after a 30-year absence from the Church. There are still others in my family who have left the Church that I pray daily for and who will, from time to time, agree to join me at Church for the big holidays. I pray these little seeds of faith take root in the hearts of the rest of my own family’s C & E Catholics.   

When you refer to these people, these souls full of potential, as C & E Catholics and joke about their sparse appearance in the pews you stomp on seeds that have been carefully planted by prayer, providence, and possibly grace. Uncharitable assumptions of character notwithstanding, it takes a lot of courage for someone absent for so many years to find their way inside the walls of a church. That should be met with compassion, not disdain.  

If you see a new face at Mass this weekend make room in the pew for them and offer them a smile, as you would any newcomer. Don’t assume and wonder where they’ve been the rest of the year even if their postures give them away as someone who’s been outside of Church a very long time.  Be extra sympathetic and welcoming in those instances.

Christ triumphed over death so we could be redeemed from our sins. For the love of Christ and in imitation of His sacrifice let us recognize with kindness our own journeys of faith in the strangers we meet.