The Gospel ‘Welcome’

Very much in Catholic news of late has been the issue of welcome. The interim report from October’s Extraordinary Synod posed questions, for example, about the Church’s capacity to welcome homosexuals. Shortly after, Father Timothy Lannon, SJ, president of Creighton University explained his curious decision to provide benefits to same-sex “spouses” of employees with the even more curious line, “I asked myself, what would Jesus do in this case? And I can only imagine Jesus being so welcoming of all people.”

The Welcoming Jesus line serves as a good trump card. Not to welcome – or not to appear welcoming – would therefore mean to disagree with Jesus. Of course, Jesus as “welcoming of all people” is not just a just a figment of Father’s imagination. Indeed, it is a profound reality. More real than many would like to consider. But providing benefits to those in a sinful lifestyle stretches the meaning of Christian welcome beyond the breaking point. All of which raises the question of what a Christian welcome means.

We all want to know that we are welcome. We can point to moments when the feeling of welcome was palpable, and therefore encouraging. We can just as easily point to other moments when we felt profoundly unwelcome, and therefore alone. One of the effects of sin is alienation and isolation. So, to speak of our Lord as welcoming resonates within every human heart desiring healing and reconciliation.

And He is indeed welcoming. His actions and words resound with welcome. The crowds go out to Him precisely because they feel welcome – because He speaks of forgiveness; He favors the poor and outcast; He touches the untouchable. In Simon the Pharisee’s house, He welcomes the repentant woman. He rebukes the disciples who prevented the children from coming to Him. He welcomes the cries of blind Bartimaeus, when the crowds sought to silence Him. And, in a variation on the theme, He welcomes Himself to Zacchaeus’ house. His detractors praise Him with words they intend as an insult: “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Lk 15:2)

His doctrine conveys that same welcome and inclusivity. His parable of the mustard seed we understand to indicate the Church’s embrace of all nations. He tells a parable about the king who, wanting to fill the hall with guests, commands his servants, “Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.” So they did, gathering “all they found, bad and good alike.” (Mt 22:9-10) Perhaps most significantly, in the parable commonly seen as the summary of the Gospel, the father welcomes his prodigal son home.

And yet. . .

The Meal in the House of the Pharisee by James Tissot, c. 1888 (Brooklyn Museum)
The Meal in the House of the Pharisee by James Tissot, c. 1888 (Brooklyn Museum)

And yet His welcome is somewhat curious. After all, He begins His public ministry with the word Repent! Not Welcome! He is not welcoming to those who are duplicitous or, more to the point, seeking to justify their own lives rather than adhere to His truth. His welcome requires a minimal acceptance of His truth. The Gospels tell us fairly often about His frustration with the crowds. And every so often it flairs up: “O faithless and perverse generation, how long will I be with you and endure you?” (Lk 9:41) “This generation is an evil generation. . .” (Lk 11:29)

Nor does He trim His doctrine to accommodate people, to make them feel welcome. When the crowds take offense at His teaching on the Eucharist, He significantly allows them to walk away. The beautiful parable about the crowds called to the wedding feast ends with the expulsion of a man who came “without a wedding garment” and then our Lord’s sober lesson: “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Mt 22:14)

And those words get to the heart of what a welcome means. As much as we want to be welcome and invited, we also know that every invitation has expectations. Every welcome mat has also the understanding that we cannot do whatever we please when we walk through the door. “Many are invited, but few are chosen,” because not all shape their lives according to the invitation’s demands.

To the world, the Gospel Welcome must appear odd indeed. It is a welcome. . .to repentance. It is an invitation. . .to change of heart. He welcomes all who will repent, all who avail themselves of His forgiveness and healing – all who, acknowledging their sin and ignorance, embrace His grace and truth. It is indeed the most important welcome for sinful humanity: a welcome to His Sacred Heart. . .provided we recognize our need for it.

As our Lord, so also His Church. For the Church to be authentically catholic, she has to proclaim Jesus’ invitation universally, to welcome all who desire the grace of conversion. She cannot empty that welcome of meaning, either by severity or by laxity. It would be no welcome at all if the means of grace were not made abundantly available to all who seek Christ. At the same time, it would be untrue and therefore uncharitable not to make known what the Gospel welcome requires.

To cut corners on either the invitation or the demands would be to fail to imitate the Good Shepherd.

Fr. Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, VA, where he serves as Episcopal Vicar for Clergy and Pastor of Saint James in Falls Church. He is the author of That Nothing May Be Lost: Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion and the editor of Sermons in Times of Crisis: Twelve Homilies to Stir Your Soul.