Is Your Parish Bogged Down in Pay-to-Pray Evangelism?

Even when a parish is doing it right, we’re still doing it backwards.

(photo: zandy126/CC0/Pixabay)

Recently the Sunday Gospel instructed:

Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. (Luke 14:13-14)

This passage applies in all aspects of our life, but in particular to our parish homes, where daily the Heavenly Banquet is made present in the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

Unfortunately, in many Catholic parishes, we’re doing it exactly backward: Parish life is firmly organized around the interests and abilities of the haves, and any ministry to the have-nots is a secondary consideration. This is difficult for many of us to see, however, because we know for a fact our parishes are working hard at many wonderful ministries to the least-of-these.

Further, it is not our desire to be exclusive. I have never met a practicing Catholic who doesn’t show a genuine desire to help the poor. And yet we continue to build our parish life upside down and backward – exactly opposite of what our Lord instructs.


“If you can’t afford registration fees, contact the parish office.”

Though I know of parishes that require the equivalent of a month’s rent on affordable housing as a mandatory step toward receiving the sacraments of initiation, I’m grateful to have always belonged to parishes where religious education fees are modest, capped, and waived for anyone in financial need. And yet even when a parish is doing it right, we’re still doing it backwards. We invite the middle class – people who have, sitting in the bank, easily summoned, what amounts to a week or two of grocery money for a family on a tight budget.

Not middle class? Okay, we’ve got you. All we need you to do is find a little time, maybe in between your day job and your night job, when you aren’t at work so you’re allowed to make personal calls, and explain to the director of religious education that you’re one of those poor people. That feels good, having to make yet another I’m-a-poor-person call, hoping as you pick up the phone that at least this time you won’t have to explain how all your possessions were honestly come by, and perhaps get to justify every line item of your budget (won’t take long, at least!) in order to prove that no, really, you don’t have the money.

This is not an experience that qualifies as a “preferential option for the poor.” It’s pay-to-pray, and it’s morally wrong.


But Bridezilla isn’t poor!

Parish staff rarely get such calls, though — they spend far too much time ministering to spoiled rich people. Father listens patiently while a young couple explains they just can’t fit a moderate donation to cover staff time and building maintenance into their wedding budget, then gets invited to come have a drink at the $30,000 reception after the ceremony. The same sulking First Communion mom who feels affronted that little Prepster is required to attend classes in order to learn Sign of the Cross (which sadly Prep hasn’t had the time to learn yet) is able to whip out coordinating custom dresses and suits for the family and hire a photographer to document every moment of the special day, from brunch to church and back for catered supper and bouncy house after.

Is it so bad, underpaid and overworked parish staff plead, to expect these people to pay their way?

This entirely reasonable wish is summed up in the explanation that gets to the heart of the problem: But the people we serve aren’t poor!”


Pick a Master

Christ wishes to be known in the distressing disguise of the poor, the imprisoned, the sick, the orphaned... the people who are not rich in the treasures of this world. If we wish to serve Christ, these are the people who have first call on our time, talent and treasure.

Imagine if your parish religious education program had the central focus of serving the least-of-these. Instead of the parents having to negotiate with staff for their children with special needs to be “allowed” to participate in regular parish life, religious education would be built around the needs of the families spread most thin. After all, if your child is easy to teach and you’ve got the time and money to do it, why are you even asking the parish to do your job for you? The priority of the parish has to be on finding rides for those without transportation, mentoring the children who lack mentors at home, and encouraging and aiding the parents most in need of emotional and social support.

What if the primary focus for pre-Cana ministry was on helping the unchurched poor come into full Communion with Jesus, including offering modest, joyful wedding services for those who have heard the Lord’s call to transform their present relationship into a sacramental one? That doesn’t mean rich people have to get married in the low-key low-budget communal service, but if a poor man’s wedding isn’t for you, you’ll have to get in line behind those who have priority.

What if in building and renovating our parishes, physical access for the disabled was the primary access? Don’t need telecoil or a sign language interpreter? That’s cool, you can come anyway, but that’s where our budget goes first, because that’s who we invited. Don’t need a ramp and automatic doors? Well, we invited the people who need those things, so that’s how our entries and seating are prioritized, but as long as you don’t get in their way, you can come too. Don’t need a Braille missal? If we have any money left over after covering our regular costs for the people we invited, we’ll see if we can’t arrange to provide a missal for you, too.

These are radical ideas. Jesus is radical. He doesn’t ask to us to throw the heavenly wedding banquet for the healthy, the wealthy, and the well-connected. And yet hidden in the Lord’s command to invite, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind . . .” is the user’s manual for how the rich are best served.


Where the Happy Catholics Hide

If you want to see rich Catholics brimming over with happiness, head down to the homeless shelter. Like a camel passing through the eye of a needle, those lucky few wealthy Catholics who see the walls of their affluent bubble open for a second and quick jump through before the portal closes again have the privilege of spending an hour, a day, maybe a lifetime in the second-closest thing to Heaven: Intimacy with Jesus in his distressing disguise.

It is of course possible to sit through Mass (closest thing to Heaven) with your heart closed and your spiritual eyes and ears shut; it is likewise possible to carry out the works of mercy similarly closed off from the joy of the Gospel.

But it is not meant to be so. And thus, in a properly-ordered parish, ministry to the rich — our uninvited but still-welcome guests — is about teaching them to know, love and serve Jesus. We are created by God to know him in the Eucharist, and to know him in the poor who sit beside us at the Heavenly Banquet. If the least-of-these are not already filling our pews, let us start sending out our invitations.

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