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Evangelizing Visitors  
Leland Nagel  

"What are you doing here?" were the first words heard upon entering the Lenten mission. Regretfully, it was followed with: "Do you belong here?" There were no official greeters, no commissioned ministers of hospitality, or even designated ushers.

One can be assured these phrases were not said to be inhospitable, nor would the parishioners have believed they missed an opportunity to evangelize. Nevertheless, hospitality and evangelization are twins, brother and sister, under the roof of the house of God, a household of abundance, a home full of grace where one finds God's love and mercy offered with reckless abandon. Nothing is unforgivable; no one is excluded.

These visitors encountered the face of Jesus, warts and all. This was the body of Christ who had raised their voices but not their hearts when they sang "All are Welcome." It was the same body that couldn't grasp the concept that God's love knows no bounds and it was the identical body that remained confused when Lent and joy were used in the same sentence.

The words offered by Jesus in Matthew 10:40 ("Anyone who welcomes you, welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me") are more of a challenge than an inspiration.

There is no coincidence that hospital and hospitality come from the same Latin root. Perhaps, Jesus understood this when in Matthew 9:12 he said, "It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick." What better time than Lent to visit where one is baptized and claimed for Christ. As Paul shared with the Corinthians, "If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it" (1 Corinthians 12:26 - 27). And individual members of the parish are wonderful; it is the parish body that needs help. Selected persons are pillars of spirituality, but the whole body is suffering from the fear factor. Persons in the pew act like a cadaver of concern rather than the living body of Christ. Quit blaming, stop talking, refuse to accuse. One cannot wait to exercise the baptismal call to evangelize. Each person is an essential part of a healthy and wholesome body of Christ.

You can't wait for the First Sunday of Lent, be there, welcoming all, on Ash Wednesday. Swarm the parking lot, flock to the streets, hover at the entrances. Leave no one untouched. Let every hand be shaken and every heart massaged. Share the excitement of what takes place at the table of love and the altar of sacrifice. Here is a story of incredible, unceasing love.

When it's dark, bring flashlights, rent searchlights, build fires, burn denatured alcohol. Hold your head high. Lift up the cross. No one is a stranger. It's a family reunion, and our heart goes out to the prodigals as well as those who are here Sunday after Sunday. They, too, need to be evangelized.

If you live in a part of the country where February 21 could be chilly and temperatures reach below zero, bundle up - hats, scarves, and mittens (purple would be liturgically correct) are encouraged, and boots are essential. Do not let yourselves be held hostage within the walls of the church. Get outside, with hand warmers if necessary, because it's important to shake hands, pat people on the back and exude joy. Hospitality is more of an attitude than a particular action. Believe that warm hands and warm hearts can melt any scowl, dissolve a disgruntled attitude, and soften hearts of stone.

If it's raining, greet people with umbrellas and walk with them to church, reminding them that you want them to stay dry until the sprinkling rite in church. If someone is dropping people off, either under the portico or outside in the rain, go to the car. In addition to helping the passengers out of the car and keeping them dry, ask the drivers if they too need an umbrella, hand them one, and indicate where they can return it once they are out of the rain.

Almost everyone has extra umbrellas at home. Encourage parishioners, in January, to drop them off so they can be used for anyone, but especially visitors, who didn't come prepared for a rainy day. Golf umbrellas are the best size. After Mass, give the driver an umbrella to get to the car. And when returning to pick up the passengers, you can be there to gather the umbrella that was used. A quick hand off, since you will be helping people get in the car while holding an umbrella.

Bring the smells and sounds of worship outside. Burn pots of incense throughout the parking lot. When people get out of their cars, let it smell like church. Better yet, act like a high-class parking lot valet and open their car door, welcoming them to St. Julian the Hospitaller Church, the parish with the finest service in the area; here you don't have to knock for the doors to be opened. Broadcast Gregorian chant with an outside sound system; let them walk to the rhythm of the monks.

Be the first to wish everyone the joy of the Lenten season. Don't chastise someone with an opening remark about how long it's been since you've seen them; rather, indicate how good it is to see them.

Good ushers will introduce visitors to matriarchs and patriarchs of the parish who can tell guests a little bit about who they are, thereby making them feel welcome and a part of the parish family. And if it doesn't happen, then I always do it myself by tapping the person on the shoulder and say, "I'm just visiting. Could you tell me something about your parish and what about it makes you feel the most proud?" By the time Mass starts, I always feel better connected and a bit prouder to be Catholic.

Create a cadre of greeters, all shapes, sizes, ages, and vocations to serve at the same Mass for the seven weeks of Lent. Have a contest to see who can learn the most names in seven weeks. Each greeter is assigned a partner but they don't find out who it is until the final tally. Remember that "one" in God's eyes is never singular. We are one Church, one faith, one body of Christ.

We are all ambassadors for Christ. Like Jesus, we meet individuals and remind them that we have the same Father who has loved us before we were in our mother's womb, and that our names are on the palm of his hand. You can add flesh to these words by inviting individual members of your parish not only to welcome everyone before Mass begins but to also share with one another why they are a member of St. Julian the Hospitaller's parish. You can limit them to two minutes.

When I experience this, I am treated to the personal witness of individuals who love God and couldn't help but extol their gratitude for God's blessings and the faith of the people with whom they worshipped and prayed. Conclude with "Wherever you are on your faith journey, we welcome you to St. Julian's."

Their testimony set the table for a banquet of love, one to which I had not only been invited but had been welcomed. I felt at home. I was part of the family. I could hear the words of Jesus made flesh: "You are my friends" (John 15:14). The Incarnation is real.

© 2013 Archdiocese of Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications,
3949 South Racine Ave, Chicago IL 60609

Leland Nagel
has held a variety of positions at diocesan and university levels. He is a part-time national sales consultant with Benziger, a division of Macmillan/McGraw-Hill. He may be contacted at leenagel@g.mail.com.
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