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 D. Scalia

Fr. Paul D. Scalia

Fr. Paul Scalia is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Va, where he serves as Episcopal Vicar for Clergy. His new book is That Nothing May Be Lost: Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion.

  • ABBonnet

    Yes, *repentance* is the critical element missing from the majority of theological discussions of forgiveness. Many people, including famous theologians who should know better, opine that forgiveness is a one-way thing. But that’s not how Jesus modeled forgiveness to us. Forgiveness requires *repentance*. Without the repentance of the sinner, one can exercise forbearance, but not forgiveness.

    These days, true forgiveness is almost always confused with the psychological act of “letting go of it”, which is really an act of forbearing patiently (Gal 5:22, μακροθυμία). If forgiveness were really a one-way action, then Jesus’ demand for repentance in order to enter the Kingdom, as well as the existence of the Sacrament of Confession, would be nonsensical.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Forgiveness really is a one-way action.

      “Make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! (Ez 18:31)” but also, “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; (Ez 36:26)” “Turn to the Lord (Hos 14:2)” but also “Turn me, and I shall be turned (Jer 31:18)” St Paul summarises it in a single sentence, “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is producing in you both the desire and the ability to do what pleases Him (Phil 2:12-13)”

      Both the desire and the ability are free gifts and it is God Who produces the repentance that forgiveness requires. “Who would dare to affirm,” asks St Augustine, “that God has no method of calling whereby even Esau might have applied his mind and yoked his will to the faith in which Jacob was justified?”

      • RainingAgain

        Why did God bother with the world at all instead of admitting us straight to Heaven? If His method of calling might trump all free will to the contrary, wouldn’t the Incarnation and Crucifixion all have been rather unnecessary palaver?

      • Mike44R

        Your quotes are more appropriate for repentance than forgiveness. Elsewhere in Scripture, both Old and New Testaments as well as the CCC, it is very clear that God’s forgiveness is available to those who repent Repentance, true contrition and change of life are requirenents for the remissiin of sin. It is why we are required to say sn Act of Contrition prior to the pridst absolving us of our sins.

      • ABBonnet

        These quotes have nothing to do with forgiveness or repentance, but in what St. Paul refers to as “Γρηγορεῖτε, στήκετε ἐν τῇ πίστει, ἀνδρίζεσθε, κραταιοῦσθε” (1 Cor 16:13).

        The two words generally used in the New Testament ament for forgiveness are ἀφῆτε and χαριζόμενοι. The latter is mostly found in the epistles of St Paul, while the former is almost exclusively found in the Gospels. The word ἀφῆτε typical implies releasing from debt (of sin). On the other hand, χαριζόμενοι generally means extending grace to someone. In all cases in both St Paul and in the Gospels, repentance of the sinner is the critical factor in forgiveness, whether ἀφῆτε or χαριζόμενοι.

        The fact that Mr. PS quotes no Dominical sayings but weakly strings together a true pilpul of non-sequiturs from the Hebrew Scriptures, shows that as usual, his reply has but a feeble grasp on the concepts it comments on.

  • Joyfully

    You’re right, of course, Father; welcoming implies some kind of overall agreement that the one welcomed will conduct themselves in a manner that will not offend the home to which they are welcomed. And this point much ignored when the topic arises.

    I would like to see Catholic institutes, such as Creighton, who open their doors to accepting responsibility for their employees “spouses” health go one step further, though, in a true act of Christian love. Instead of bending to popular pressure (within and without their institutes) introduce a bolder stroke of compassion: “We will now allow all our insured employees to include all their children up to the age of 26 (arbitrary age chosen because it is was is today) and up to three people of their choosing who are not blood relations but have no other access to health insurance.”

    By doing this kind grand gesture, the gays can include their spouses without necessarily making it about their sinful behavior. People that have a young, foster-like person living with them would be able to include that person. It could be a deadbeat brother or a newly-divorced sister and her child. Really, it could be any person of their choosing – even their own child over the age of 26.

    This solution takes the focus off the homosexuals. And gets more people covered. Yes it will be costly, but not as costly as lawsuits and fines and it is generous, which I kind of also thought we Christians are supposed to be.

    • Patti Day

      Major corporations began covering “unmarried partners” at least ten years ago, so why not come right out with it and say the university doesn’t want to deal with the legal hassle or the university doesn’t have a problem with how people choose to live their lives, but this gesture made under the WWJD banner of welcome and mercy seems disingenuous.

      • Mike44R

        Creighton is a “Catholic” institution. Refusing coverage for sane-sex partners, abortion and contraceptives on religous grounds is covered by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution – even if our “fearless leader” kn Pennsylvania Avenue thinks otherwise. Either that orvCreighton AND the Jesuits need to secede from the ONLY Church founded by Jesus Christ. You cannot accomodate sjn without sinning gravely yourself.

      • Joyfully

        I am not waving a WWJD banner, never have. But just “unmarried partners” seems unfair to me. Many people are very attached and dependent on people who are not “unmarried partners” in a sexual way but people who chose to live together to reduce the cost of single life style or loneliness. We used to call them “friends”. Sometimes “friends” are down on their luck – lose their job, lose their spouse – it’s really none of our business to know how people’s lives become intertwined. But if I am able, for an additional $127 a month, to add a person I care about to my insurance plan why do I have to be in a sexual relationship with them at all? Can I not be charitable to my deadbeat brother? My newly divorced sister? My nephew whose drug addiction got him kicked out of his life?

        If you hate the idea of homosexuals receiving any assistance of the institutions run by the Church speak plainly. Object to the institutions hiring them in the first place. Making it be about “spousal benefits” puts the homosexuals into the position of having to sin in order to receive health benefits.

    • Mike44R

      You are kiddjng yourself. You cannot hide sinful behavior from God and as a disciple of the KING of kings you cannot also try to hide that sinfulness by the subtefuge you suggest. There is only Light and Dark / Truth and Untruth. There are absolutely NO grey areas where sin is concerned. What you suggest is whitewashing in an effort to cover over the Darkness of sjn.

      • Joyfully

        There is no hiding anything from God, even contempt for fellow man. That said, removing an obstacle from the path strikes me as an obvious way to avoid falling. They wouldn’t be insured because they are “gay” but because someone is willing to add them to their workplace plan which does, at least in my experience, cost both the employee and employer $. The obstacle in this case is the claim made by the SSM crowd who scream about “marital benefits” as one of the reasons they should be given legitimacy. Do you object to a person having a homosexual 23 year old daughter on their insurance?

        Mike, not all healthcare consists of “reproductive health”, regardless of what the crazies in the House may want us to believe; sometimes people fall off a ladder and break an arm, gay or not.

      • ScottG

        I have to disagree with you here, Mike, in both your tone and sentiment. Because we all are flawed humans and fall short of God’s glory in this life, “we” simply lack the capacity to discern light from dark in ALL circumstances. For us mere mortals, there certainly are gray areas where sin is concerned, just as there is dusk before nightfall and dawn before daylight. Natural law is reflective of divine law. Are we to judge the hearts of those who make choices we don’t agree with, or is that function more aptly suited for our Lord and Savior? Father Scalia’s piece, I think, asserts the latter. He aptly states that the Gospel welcome… “is a welcome. . .to repentance. It is an invitation. . .to change of heart.” He then points out that “For the Church to be authentically catholic, she has to proclaim Jesus’ invitation universally, to welcome all who desire the grace of conversion.” The difficulty we have, once again as mere mortals, is in making that determination. In my view, and the one I find consistent with the gospel message, is to continually welcome and to continually invite those from all walks of life, and leave the judging to God. A relentless spirit of love and welcoming will win more souls for Christ than will blame and judging. Contrary to what another poster said, the former is more difficult than the latter.

  • Dennis Larkin

    Is it perhaps simply that, decades ago, progressive Catholics, as with Creighton’s president, decided that the Gospel actually no longer required us to be counter-cultural? I think so. I think that at root of the choices to eliminate any requirements for fellowship is mere human cowardice. It’s easier to be a lover than a fighter.

  • Brian English

    The “welcoming/pastoral” movement that is sweeping the Church misses a critical point:
    “We implore the mercy of God, not that He may leave us at peace in our vices, but that He may deliver us from them.”

  • ericdenman

    It is a sad moment in Catholicism and for our Savior Jesus when his ordained disciples spin Jesus ‘ words to justify acquiescing to peer pressure in lieu of defending Christ’s teachings. What is wrong with the Jesuits these days?

  • ericdenman

    It is a sad moment in Catholicism and for our Savior Jesus when his ordained disciples spin
    Jesus ‘ words to justify acquiescing to peer pressure in lieu of defending
    Christ’s teachings. What is wrong with the Jesuits these days?

  • I am the unwashed- I am the man left without a wedding garment- because I choose to be faithful and repentant, I am not welcome at the table of sinners.

    That has been the shock that caused me to become all the more militant for the Lord.

    • Mike44R

      Could you elaborate and explain what you mean?

      • Just that the more inclusive some people are, the more they exclude those of us who work hard to build a good home under a normal family life.

  • Esperanzaypaz

    Dear Father Scalia,

    Thank you! This is probably the most balanced view I have read in these pages in a long, long time. A cradle Catholic, I have been a woeful sinner, But never fallen away from my faith yet often disenfranchised from an unforgiving church and its relentless doctrine. Thanks to God, He put a pastor in my path who knows the smell of his sheep and helped me back into the fold. From time to time, I follow Mr. Royal’s motley crew of “good conservative Catholics” on the ‘other channel’ of this publication who seem to be able to completely block out two thousand years of history where the teachings have changed again and again but Our Lord’s message never has – a gospel of mercy, forgiveness, kindness, and yes, indeed, the welcoming of sinners. How else to find your way again to Him? They may lengthen their phylacteries all they want, and question the Pope’s authority – I just know they have no chance, really, because it is the Holy Spirit who will prevail. Praise God for those like you who may be instruments for mediation.

  • toddyo1935

    Looks like SCOTUS Justice Scalia raised his kid right. Now if we can only get John Roberts to admit he screwed up by letting the despotic, eugenic Obamacare squeak by on a phony technicality.

  • Mike44R

    It is quite true, as Pope Francis suggests, that compassion, understanding, mercy and forgjveness are necessary. Indeed they are requirenents. However, Jesus, whose vicar Francis is, also makes it crystal clear that true contrition, heartfelt remorse, faithful repentance and change of life are equal requirenents. Those who embrace/welcome both the sinner AND the sin are committing an enormous disservice and offense to the unrepentant sinner, to hinself, to the Church and, most importantly, to Christ Himself precisely because he (the one who welcomes sinner and sin) is doing nothing to save the sinner from perdition. Consequentky, such a person is on the road to perdition himself and dragging many along with him as Mary warned at Garabandal in 1965. Woe to him/her who fails to do everything possible to save his/her own soul AND the souls of others!

  • Nancy Janzen

    any times people act like Jesus would accept any sin to welcome. These people call everybody who diagrees unchristian. They treat the victims of their preferred brand of sinner as if they instead of the sinner should be ostracized. All are children of the same God so when you call those upset about say illegal immigration unchristian you are ignoring the pain of people like the young father who cried out to the president “use your pen to bring my son back to life”H He is not the child of a lesser god. His pain is real but do we have charity for him?

  • Dave Fladlien

    Unfortunately, we seem to be discussing several things at once here… First off, it is (as a great Bishop pointed out some years ago) very dangerous to ask “what would Jesus do”. We are assuming we can guess what He’d do, when in fact His closest friends were at times very surprised by what He did. Much better to ask what DID Jesus do, then we aren’t guessing.

    But in a broader sense, we have to be very careful of basic human decency. As Pope Francis has correctly pointed out, gay partners and others in lifestyles with which many Christians disagree, still need access to healthcare, etc. It should not be assumed that in providing that access, we are condoning their lifestyle: we are simply recognizing that they are nonetheless our brothers and sisters in Christ. “What ever you did for the LEAST of these…” He didn’t limit it to those not living in sin. Good thing since we’re all living in some form of sin.

    I think we do have to welcome all people, but not all behaviors. It isn’t easy to figure out how to combine these requirements, but I think we can say the following: It is true that we have to be spreading Gospel values; it is also true that we must avoid judging if we want to avoid judgment, which I definitely need to avoid. That’s where it switches from the moral principle to the individual. Bottom line: there are no easy, simplistic answers. Life isn’t all black and white, and neither can our responses be. Even where there is objective sin, the same objective sin can have totally different subjective culpability in two different cases. We are going to have to learn to take each case on its merits.

    My 2 cents.

    • midwaygrad

      Are you suggesting that, in the course of providing access, you mean to provide it via the spousal relationship? Seems to me that you are then condoning the lifestyle. You would need to help that spouse find his/her own healthcare. My 2 cents.

      • Dave Fladlien

        You raise a very good point, and one I haven’t thought about as much as I probably need to, yet I’m pretty confident of this somewhat “offhand” response: The classical theological position, as I understand it, is that we may allow evil, but may not participate in it. There are two points here. 1) in providing health care for someone in a lifestyle we believe is sinful, we are not participating in their sinful lifestyle, any more than a doctor who aids a wounded soldier fighting for the “wrong side” is aiding the wrong side. 2) I think the distinction between doing and tolerating evil is a little too black-and-white for today’s world where so many things are interwoven.

        Like it or not — and I don’t like it at all — the fiction called “gay marriage” is a fact in today’s world, a fact promulgated by a misunderstanding of, and great over-dedication too, “equality”. I think we need to work to change that misunderstanding of human rights and dignity as “equality”. I don’t think we can or should choose a battleground of healthcare, nor do I think that by acknowledging that “gay marriage” is being practiced, we are condoning it. We are simly recognizing that it exists.

        The real problem is the silly sentimentality that says everyone should be treated “equally”, no matter what that entails. They should not be. They should all be treated JUSTLY, and with love. I think that is where the battleground has to be. I’m not a great fan of Pope Francis, as anyone who knows me is aware, but I do listen to what he says, and I do think that he is right that we are choosing some wrong battlegrounds and hurting, not helping, our cause in process.

        I think you have raised a very good question, and I hope this answer is at least slightly worthy of your question.

        • NDaniels

          One cannot be a spouse to someone if one is not existing in relationship as husband and wife. It is a sin to condone adultery.

  • David J. Busch

    This is a most excellent article. We need to be reminded of Christ’s last words to the repentant woman caught in adultery: “Go and sin no more.” They are so frequently omitted by those relating that encounter.

  • midwaygrad

    Too many Catholics seem to be sucked in by the PC mentality and/or the con of Marxism couched in the name of social justice. One can, indeed, love the sinner without condoning the sin. To make the distinction is neither mean spirited, inappropriate or wrong.

  • jess

    In the final analysis, there is only one thing necessary believe God and obey Him.

  • Elaine Steffek

    Best article I have read this year! The clarity is astounding.
    Why can’t all our bishops and even our beloved Pope
    speak this way????

  • chesterlab

    I must have had a different experience than others. I was an Anglican who had been mulling over in my head the idea of converting to Catholicism for years. When I moved to a new city, I wasn’t very happy with my Anglican church that I had been attending, and so I decided to walk into a Latin Rite Catholic Church where they sing Gregorian Chant at high mass. I was stunned. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced, and I had been to dozens of Novus Ordo masses over the years. Nous Ordo to me is like a low Anglican mass, but the Latin Rite-that was the real catholic church-the church of the millenia. I went several times, and while I wasn’t love bombed as they are so fond of doing in the Pentecostal and hyper-charismatic churches, I didn’t get any dirty looks either. I finally got the nerve to speak to the priest, made a decision to join, and the faithful couldn’t have been more welcoming. They were more friendly than some of the Anglican parishes I’ve worshiped at over the years. I even joined the choir while I was still taking RCIA classes and they had no problem with the Anglican singing Gregorian chant and polyphony every week. We had lots of laughs singing with the “reformer.” I had been in my childhood protestant choir the whole time I grew up so I know all the English hymns in parts already, and even some of the catholic ones (with different words, of course). It was quite the experience. Now that i have been confirmed, I feel as though i’ve been at my church forever. This is my home now and I will stay at my church until I die.