Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning writes for several publications and blogs daily at Aleteia. She lives in New Hampshire with her husband and ten children. Without supernatural aid, she would hardly be a human being.
Is your church welcoming to outsiders? Or to insiders? The other day, Dom Bettinelli hosted an interesting conversation on Facebook, wondering what lay Catholics would suggest to make their parishes more accessible and inviting.
His original question was about how to make parishes more welcoming for people who aren't familiar with the Faith, but I'm expanding it a bit here, and thinking about things that most people could use, whether they're regular parishioners or someone who just stumbled in to get out of the rain.
The one rule is: it has to be fairly cheap, and cannot cause major upheaval or headaches for the pastor. No "replace everything with marble" or "assign a 24-hour on-call spiritual adviser to each parishioner" or "install heated holy water fonts" or "ban banjos."
Well, maybe that last one.
First, let me list what I suddenly realize are the many things that my parish does really well on a shoestring, with three priests covering five churches (and the school, and the jails, and the nursing homes, and the soup kitchen, and and and):
There is a rack with about a dozen short, clear, visually attractive pamphlets explaining Church doctrine on issues like pornography and euthanasia. Lots of people would never ask certain questions in person, but they do want to know. They also offer Lighthouse CD's for $3 in the vestibule, with lots of variety and a constantly changing selection.
They offer a huge variety of religious education for people of all ages, and some ages even have their choice of which kind of religious education to take. This must actually be a pretty tall order, and I have no idea how expensive it is for the parish; but the part that I really appreicate is that there is no bias in favor Catholic school families or public school families or homeschoolers. It's very obvious that they just want to reach as many people in as many ways as possible, really hammering home the idea that the sacraments are from God and that grace is free free free. There is very little red tape or power plays or hoops to jump through like I've seen in other parishes.
There is a parish-wide culture which is welcoming of children (and other sometimes-noisy people), reinforced by the pastor, supported by all the priests, and maintained by nearly all the staff and volunteers. Some parishes seem determined to drive away young families, and then they wonder why the pews are so empty! But not at our church. There are always a few crabapples in the pews, but in general, normal kid behavior is accepted and even beamed upon, which means that people will continue to come to Mass.
There are greeters at the door who are friendly without being aggressive or intrusive. I'm more of a head-down-head-for-the-pew type, but that's because I already know I belong there. For lots of people, a smile and a simple "good morning" of welcome make them feel like someone wants them there. Which Someone does!
There is variety in the style of liturgical music. I'm not crazy about the banjo Mass or the contemporary guitar Mass, but other people are. So they go to those Masses, and I go to the one with the organ. So everybody's happy. And guess what? The priests are equally reverent at all Masses, and I have no idea which one they prefer, which is how it ought to be.
There is a clear sign outside that tells when Mass and confession are. I do wish there would be better information about when and where Mass is celebrated on Holy Days of Obligation. I don't understand why it changes each time, and I often end up calling the rectory, which I hate doing because I know everyone else is doing it. But I've been to churches where the door is locked and there is no sign at all, so you have no idea if the parish is even functional, or what.
Each pew has laminated cards to help us lifers remember the new words after the translation of the liturgy was corrected. I've almost got it by heart, but it's helpful to have those cheat sheets. I think the fact that there are cheat sheets makes newbies feel more at home, because even the cradle Catholics need a guide.
A few things which (at the risk of sounding like this guy) I'd really like to see:
A clear statement in the bulletin that Holy Days are obligatory, and that it's a grave matter to skip attending Mass on those days without a good reason.
Clear directions to the bathroom! A lot of church buildings are old, and the bathrooms are small and out of the way, and it's too expensive to retrofit them. Fine, but how much does it cost to put a bunch of clear signs with arrows? And a changing table somewhere on the premises would be awfully nice. (I get that they don't always fit in old-fashioned bathrooms. A corner away from the donut counter is fine.)
For the love of mike, a sign telling people where to line up for confession. I cannot overstate the heartache and emotional devastation my family has suffered over this tragic oversight.
Children's missals in the pews would be nice! Definitely a pricier item, but it could make a huge difference in a family's experience of the Mass. Adults really benefit from helping kids follow the Mass, too.
Little tidbits from the catechism or other instruction in the Faith in the bulletin. Lots of people read the bulletin during Mass anyway, so why not take the opportunity to catechise them? (It's possible my church already does this, and my kids just eat that section before I get to read it.)
How does your church do? What would you like to see, that is actually doable and would actually help a lot of people?