How Welcoming Is the Church?

For years “welcoming” has been a buzz word among Church critics who seem to use it as a measure of how well the Church is reaching out to those reluctant to darken her doors. Most recently, the media enthusiastically lauded what it perceived as a new welcome toward certain preferred groups in October’s Extraordinary Synod on the family.

What does “welcoming” mean? And how welcoming is the Catholic Church? According to a recent study by Benedictine University, a large percentage of Catholics deem a welcoming community an essential criterion of a good church experience. Some, if they do not find the welcome they desire, go elsewhere.

As a verb “to welcome” means “to greet with pleasure and hospitality.” As an adjective “welcome” means “gladly and courteously received; agreeable or gratifying.” By definition, then, a welcoming church graciously receives its people in a kindly way. To welcome someone is an act of charity, and therefore it is a beneficence that has a legitimate place in the life of the Church.

But how exactly should the Church should welcome people? Some parishes have placed “greeters” at the doors of churches to meet every entrant with a hearty, “Good morning.” Others have inserted their own command to welcome their pew-mates – “Please stand and greet those around you – before the opening procession. (I know of one children’s religion book that, inexplicably, lists this command as an actual part of the Mass itself.) Yet these efforts at professional welcome are often too artificial and, dare I suggest, hokey, to produce a genuine feeling of satisfaction in the person being “received.”

Jesus’ life certainly provides insights into how his Body the Church can be welcoming. He urges people to come into his presence (“Come, follow me”; “Let the children come to me”). And he, more aggressively, invites himself into the lives of others (“Zacchaeus, I must stay at your house today”). Jesus’ idea of welcome is not a banal greeting, but a genuine interpersonal exchange through which He initiates a relationship – and eventually, friendship – with the one called.

Jesus Calls Zacchaeus by Niels Larsen Stevns (c. 1913)
Jesus Calls Zacchaeus by Niels Larsen Stevns (c. 1913)

By extension, for the Church to be welcoming she must be active in inviting people into a personal relationship with Christ: this is the very purpose of her existence. And this relationship is more than just spiritual. It is sacramental, since the Church directly transmits God’s grace to men and women so that their relationship with Christ may be real, substantial, fruitful, and even physical through the reception of the Holy Eucharist. The Church can never be more gracious to her people than when she is giving them grace.

In God’s mysterious plan of salvation, the transmission of His sacramental grace requires human beings as His conduits, and we all know only too well that often our less than charitable attitudes and mannerisms can spark resentment rather than gratitude in those we are called to serve. It is on this point that some, especially Church critics, fixate. They do not see the grace that God is offering because they allow themselves to be consumed by less than gracious responses from the fragile conduits of grace.

Fallen beings that we are, we all fall short of the charity and welcome that may be demanded at a given moment. But our failures point us to another truth about what “welcome” means: genuine welcome is not easy. It requires sacrifice from the “welcomer,” who, in imitation of our Lord, must give of himself so that the other may receive. Awareness of this reality should prompt forgiveness and a willingness to seek again for anyone who has not received the welcome that he deserved.

During recent debates surrounding the Synod, some voices suggested that the Church could make herself more welcoming by omitting language that describes sin. The preferred groups of the Synod – divorced Catholics and Catholics experiencing same-sex attraction – would be more likely to participate if the Church ceased to remind them of the realities of sin. The drafters of the Synod’s midterm report, bishops and cardinals all, seemingly attempted this very tactic by using what the New York Times deemed “words of welcome and understanding” to address these groups.

But ignoring obvious problems and sins is no welcome at all, and Jesus’ own actions show that “to welcome” is not synonymous with “being allowed to do what one wants.” As Jesus dined with Zacchaeus, the tax collector immediately renounced his sinful ways. As Jesus saved the adulterous woman from stoning, He warned her to sin no more. As Jesus tried to change the ways of the Pharisees – men whose hard hearts needed welcome as much as anyone – He hammered them with insults for their dogged stubbornness. And as Jesus explained that His flesh and blood must be eaten to have eternal life, He did not rescind or modify His teaching after many would-be disciples, having rejected it, walked away.

Jesus came to invite sinners into a personal relationship through which He slowly transforms them into saints. Continuing His mission, the Church, to use Pope Francis’ image, is a field hospital that welcomes sinners with the ultimate hospitality: divine grace. A genuine welcome, then, can never ignore sin, lest the sinner forget why he has come to the Church in the first place.

David G Bonagura, Jr.

David G. Bonagura Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.