“Good morning and welcome to St. Michael Catholic church. Before Mass begins, we invite you to take a moment to greet those around you.”
I was on vacation at the time I heard these words, and thus totally unfamiliar with the parish until I had searched for local Catholic churches. There wasn’t much choice compared to my options in a densely populated city, but I knew Mass was Mass—the same and just as important in the rural diocese I was visiting as it is in the Archdiocese of Washington (and the rest of the Universal Church). I was excited to experience another faith community as a visitor.
After the cantor made the welcome announcement, the parishioners around me turned and exchanged greetings with their neighbors. While there were a number of familiar faces for them, mine was new. Their eyes lit up when they saw me. I appreciated the parishioner’s hospitality efforts, beginning with the first handshake and smile. As Mass began, I could not help but pick up on the small differences in the celebration of the liturgy: the church was smaller and rounder, there was a piano instead of an organ, the servers were past middle-age, and the priest liked to stroll up and down the aisle during his homily. While it was not exactly what I was used to, the actual worship of God and the spiritual nourishment of the faithful was no less authentic or beneficial. The Word of God was proclaimed in the readings and we received the real Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. We sang hymns, exchanged a sign of peace, and participated in the usual liturgical responses, movements, and postures at the appropriate times.
These experiences may very well be shared by anyone taking a vacation this summer or otherwise visiting another parish. The Mass transcends one’s location or liturgical preferences. It is ultimately the gathering and lifting of prayers of praise, petition, repentance, and thanksgiving to God Who blesses us with His grace and True Presence. In Her wisdom, the Church has laid down guidelines for the celebration of the liturgy that must be adhered to in order to be valid. Without them, the Mass would lose its focus on divine worship and partaking in the Sacred Mysteries. While different parishes and cultures may imbue a different spiritual character in the celebration of the sacraments, the Substance (God) remains the same to unite all the faithful, whoever and wherever they may be. This universality reflects that of the Church, instituted to proclaim Christ to all, especially those outside of His Body.
My experience of welcome at this new church during my vacation reflected that very evangelical mission! One does not have to go far to invite another to share in the Sacred Mysteries—all are invited to enter and re-enter the liturgy, and to do so more deeply than before in order to draw more meaning and grace along one’s spiritual journey.
After that morning’s Mass, the church hosted a hospitality breakfast during which I was continually greeted by other parishioners who expressed amazement that I found my way to join them in the Eucharist at such an early hour—and on a weekday! To some, it was refreshing to see not only a new face, but a young one. They were as happy to greet me and share their experiences as I was to be there and form new ones. Before leaving that church to continue on with the day, the members of the faithful drew strength from their reception of Jesus in the Eucharist and from each other in order to sustain them through the burdens and challenges of their lives.
In welcoming newcomers to the Catholic Church, let us strive to extend the same heartfelt message as our Lord to the wearied disciples after His Passion: “Peace be with you!” Doing so will not only help others benefit from the graces and support offered at your home parish, but will also strengthen and enrich the life of the local church as it endeavors to minister to the world spreading the Gospel message.
Question for Reflection: How does visiting different parishes deepen your understanding of the Mass? Have you ever benefitted from attending Mass in a different location or within a different culture?