By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY, Archbishop of Atlanta | Published February 5, 2009 | En Español
I had long heard of Southern hospitality before arriving here as the Archbishop of Atlanta. This widely acknowledged attribute of life in our region is one of the celebrated qualities that most people encounter when arriving in the South. Southern people are genteel and hospitable. I certainly have found that to be true, and regularly I continue to encounter expressions of welcome that validate that feature.
During the past week or so, I have visited at least a half dozen parishes in the Archdiocese, and everywhere I have heard the expression, “Thank you for coming to our parish.” There is a spirit of welcome that exudes from within our communities. And I hope and believe that it is not simply extended to the Archbishop.
One of the vitally important qualities of parish life that our strategic study has underscored is the spirit of hospitality that people need to find when they visit one of our communities. Welcome is a very significant factor in encouraging people to consider choosing a particular parish as their church home. When folks encounter a warm and sincere welcome at the church door, they are inclined to return. And the opposite, unfortunately, is also true.
Most of the so-called “mega-churches” have a well-honed welcome ministry that usually impresses first-time visitors. They are greeted and honored as guests, and there is usually quick follow-up if they do not return. We can all learn something about this important gesture of welcome that will serve all of our parishes well. We need to remember that Southern hospitality is a grace that has been perfected in this region so much so that people comment about it far and wide. Hospitality is also a characteristic of the most successful church communities. Ushers and greeters who warmly welcome folks to the church leave a very favorable impression on first-time visitors.
As the Archbishop, I am honored when people thank me for visiting their communities. While those visitations are an important and necessary dimension of my service as the shepherd of this local church, there is an element of welcome that I discover in such greetings that makes my visit so much more personally satisfying.
We all know what it means when we are greeted and welcomed to the home of a friend or neighbor. How much more important therefore is it for a newcomer to be greeted at the house of the Church. Certainly even more so is it an indication that we would like them to return and to become a steady part of the family of faith.
Occasionally some parishes actually invite all of their visitors to stand and publicly be recognized at Mass. Whatever the method employed for making guests feel welcome and at home, the consequences are significant as these newcomers take their place around the Lord’s table and enrich the entire community by their presence.