Oh, We Need a Little Kolędy — Even If Not This Very Minute

Why should American priests use the post-Christmas ordinary time to visit the homes of their parishioners?

‘Epiphany’ (photo: vetre / Shutterstock)

Kolędy (co-LEND-ee, literally “carols”) is a Polish Catholic custom where parish priests after Epiphany physically visit the homes of parishioners. The highlight of the visit is the blessing of the home and the inscription in chalk over its main entrance door “20 K + M + B + 23” — three crosses, the initials (in Polish) of the three kings, and the year.

The blessing of the house was often conjoined with at least some brief pastoral remarks. It was a chance for the parish priests to see their parishioners’ material living conditions. It was also an opportunity to invite lapsed Catholics, those who did not come to Mass or were living in irregular unions, to come back and set things right. Traditional kolędy did not involve the parishioner inviting the priest over — it involved the priests going on their initiative to see all the sheep on their rolls.

As a Polish American kid growing up in New Jersey, I remember kolędy very well. The priest generally showed up sometime after school (lots of moms didn’t work back then), usually an altar boy or two in tow, with holy water and incense. Having a priest in the house was something novel.

Sociological changes altered Polish American kolędy. Two-worker families, the move of parishioners out of the old urban centers to the suburbs, the demographic (and crime) changes in those old urban centers, and plain old Catholic disinterest eventually resulted in many Polish American parishes simply telling those parishioners who might want their home blessed to leave their name and number in the collection basket or on the answering machine to make an “appointment.”

A lot was lost in that process — and it didn’t have to be. I remember a priest friend who became a pastor in a Polish American parish bordering Newark in the mid-1980s. He didn’t wait to get invited; he went to all the people registered in his church. Knowing many worked, he went after supper, i.e., on dark January nights. He knocked. And more often than not, “it was opened to him …” And it was a chance for him to bless those homes and engage in some of those pastoral conversations that did bring some people back to church.

There’s been a lot of lament about anemic rates of Mass attendance in the wake of the bishops’ Mass moratorium of 2020. When parishes began partially to reopen after COVID-19, some pastors instituted “reservation” systems to observe civilly-imposed quotas on Mass attendance (masquerading as occupancy rates). Many found that they had quickly to junk their e-ticket seat holds because there just wasn’t that kind of demand in the queue, and those numbers still haven’t recovered. Post-pandemic Catholic America is looking less like pre-pandemic Catholic America and more like thoroughly secularized Western Europe.

What do we do about that? Shouldn’t it look like a committed and engaged Church?

I have previously repeatedly called for a programmatic spiritual plan [] to renew the return to Mass post-COVID. That (and accountability for the Mass closures) hasn’t happened. And our pretense that, somehow, it would all go back to normal is a pastoral failure.

It should be a pastoral failure because it would be first and foremost a spiritual failure. The post-COVID Church in the United States has undergone a transformative experience as a result of this pandemic. There is no simple turning back the clock to March 8, 2020.

Adopting the wisdom of the French poet Charles Péguy, whose 150th birthday fell on Jan. 7: Either the restoration of the post-COVID Church in America will be spiritual, or it will not be.

Which is where the idea of kolędy comes in. Believe it or not, it’s still in the liturgical books. Speaking of the practice from a broader (i.e., not just Polish) perspective, the Vatican’s Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy includes it among the traditions of Epiphany customs:

The blessing of homes, on whose lentils are inscribed the Cross of salvation, together with the indication of the year and the initials of the three wise men (C+M+B), which can also be interpreted to mean Christus mansionem benedicat, written in blessed chalk; this custom, often accompanied by processions of children accompanied by their parents, expresses the blessing of Christ through the intercession of the three wise men and is an occasion for gathering offerings for charitable and missionary purposes.

So, why should American priests use the post-Christmas ordinary time for kolędy?

First, Catholic homes need to be blessed. The Catholic home is the “little church,” the ecclesiola where much of the work of religion occurs (see Familiaris consortio, No. 71 and its Conclusion). The Catholic home has been the primary locus of religious observance during COVID-19 when parochial field hospitals struck tent and closed down. Catholic homes and spirituality are also under considerable anti-Catholic pressure from the surrounding culture. If we are really serious about the role of the Catholic home and family, especially after the experience of COVID, they need to be blessed in situ.

Second, priests need to reach out to their scattered flocks where they are. They should not wait for the sheep to come back to them; they should go out to them, smell the sheep where they live, and bring them back. This is the time to reengage with all your parishioners — not just those who love you and invite you in (cf. Matthew 5:46, Luke 6:32) but also with those who do not open the door to your knock (Revelation 3:20) or even slam it in your face. Perhaps, most importantly, it’s time to reengage with those who say, “I do not know you” (Luke 13:27) — nor you them. If Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons can ring my doorbell uninvited in the name of the Gospel, why can’t you?

I recognize that a parish-wide effort might be too great a system shock for some priests, so how about 2023 as a year to visit those who invite you, with the proclaimed expectation that 2024 will be a year of outreach to all? Here is your time to see all those “parishioners” who are otherwise but a registration card to you. “We’re back!” is your message, “and we want you.” Here is your time to see what your parishioners need. Here is your chance to be Christ reaching them.

COVID-19 was a crisis but also a Kairos, a moment of grace to incarnate — in your parishes, dioceses and country — the “new evangelization” that takes Catholicism to the faithful, not as an obligation, custom or default, but as a lived and exciting faith.

You will leave your people a blessing, hopefully something to read about their faith and their parish, and the memory of “the priest who came to see me.” After all, the Christus of whom you are an alter also went down a road with the message that worked out well for at least 12 people: “Come and see!”