By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY, Archbishop of Atlanta | Published November 20, 2008
Whether it be at Christ the King Cathedral or a parish that I am visiting, I like to stand at the back of church and greet people as they arrive. I suppose that I am still practicing what my first pastor always required of his associates, that we be available when people were arriving at church or leaving at the close of Mass, but those moments are very important encounters with God’s people. I enjoy watching young parents arrive with their toddlers in tow—looking for a seat that provides an easy escape route in case one is required during Mass—or observing those folks who have just managed to find the last parking space, way at the end of the parking lot. I like to hold the door open for those who come into God’s house.
Welcoming people to church is a very important ministry, and our ushers and greeters need to remember that they are the first faces and the first extended hands that welcome the strangers who come to worship with us. During our strategic planning process, the spirit and habits of welcome that our parishes provide for people are a recurrent theme and focus. The warm and hospitable parish is usually the one that grows.
People can be quite predictable when they come to church—they are creatures of habit. They like to sit on a particular side of the church or even in the same pew week after week. But what if they arrive as strangers at a church? What if they do not know anyone at the parish? They need to be welcomed and to be made to feel at home and comfortable within a community.
When the Archbishop is the one that holds the door open for them as they arrive, that is a clear sign of the welcome that the church must extend to everyone. But obviously I cannot be at each church door every Sunday for every Mass. That belongs to those who greet people as a ministry of welcoming and hospitality. It also is the work of the parishioners who can present a warmth and welcome that is engaging for those who are visitors.
Most of us know intuitively how to welcome people into our homes and to make them feel at ease. That same type of behavior assures the stranger and the newcomer that they are most welcome in the house of the church.
This is an even more important gesture when people do not speak our language or are new in town or may be visiting a Catholic church for the very first time. Those first impressions are critical and will often decide whether the people come back again. The spirit of welcome has long been a concern for the church going back to the time of the apostles when St. James had to remind the community that they should not discriminate between those who are wealthy and those who are poor at the Eucharist:
For if a man with gold rings on his fingers and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here, please,” while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs? (James 2:2-4)
Hospitality and welcome have been important from the earliest days of the church—and they have become even more so in a community like the Archdiocese of Atlanta. So many new people come to us hoping to feel at home—and their presence makes us ever more a church of life, growth and welcome.