Some of the greatest evangelizing moments, where Catholics encounter believers, unbelievers and the fallen away, are the celebrations of baptisms, weddings, and funerals.
Some refer to these rituals as “gateway moments,” transitional moments in life where communities gather in prayer at the church. They are critical and unique opportunities to reach all with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Blessed Pope Paul VI made it very clear in his encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi that the church “exists to evangelize.” If this is true, and our parishes are serious about evangelization, shouldn’t we be the best baptizers, the best marriers and the best buriers that we can be?
This cannot be relegated to the clergy solely, although their role as presiders and preachers is paramount to the process. The work of evangelization belongs to the entire community, and it begins with hospitality.
“Hospitality” in our culture is perhaps an overused term. For some it is a kind of passive, genteel word conjuring up images of someone serving tea and finger foods when the neighbors drop by. But if we look at the etymology of the word and its biblical origins, we come away with much more powerful imagery.
Love for the ‘stranger’
The word hospitality in Greek is a combination of two concepts. First, phileo, one of several words for “love” meaning brotherly or sisterly love. The second Greek concept is xenos, which actually means “stranger.” So the word hospitality, as we know it, means a “brotherly or sisterly love of the stranger.”
In the ancient world of Jesus, it was believed to be a serious sin to turn away a stranger. So, in Scripture, hospitality was not an option. It often not only meant the difference between life and death to the stranger but also was a holy gesture.
Moses explains in Leviticus: “The stranger who sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev 19:
This understanding of hospitality was and is a sacred obligation.
From the earliest moments of his life, born when there was no hospitality at an inn, and then throughout his public ministry, Jesus spends much of his time depending on the goodness of others, often complete strangers, for a meal to eat and a place to rest. Much of his teaching takes place over a meal, over a moment of rest and in the home of a stranger.
Synod emphasizes hospitality
From the perspective of our parishes and parish ministries, the call to hospitality needs to become a central understanding of who we are and what we want to be. The first priority of our 9th Archdiocesan Synod invites each parish to “form welcoming communities.” This entails far more than a friendly “hello.”
Hospitality in our parishes can be a true entre in evangelization – inviting another into the good news of Jesus Christ. When done well, it has the power to change one’s relationship with the Lord and with others. Hospitality means welcoming the stranger into our church family, so they might learn Jesus, love Jesus and live Jesus.
When a true understanding of hospitality becomes central to a parish’s identity and ministry, all parish relationships become rooted in this evangelizing commitment. The death of a loved one, serious illness of self or other, loss of employment or divorce are gateway moments when people look to the church for support. In each of these cases, God affords the faith community the opportunity to reach out in love, to restore and to aid in the healing process, to provide hope and to be compassionate to all who cross the thresholds of our church doors, parishioner or stranger.
Funerals can be one of the greatest evangelization moments we have. Many who are distanced from or who don’t know Jesus and his church will attend the funeral of a parent, a child, a relative, a colleague or friend. These must be moments when we are radically hospitable. In these tender times, clergy and laity alike are called to fulfill the corporal work of mercy of burying the dead; being present to and walking with the grieving, offering hope and providing spiritual comfort.
Many parishes make certain that they are fully represented at the funeral before, during and after the Liturgy of Christian Burial with outreach, care and compassion to family members, as well as to the “strangers” who come in the midst of the darkness of loss looking for a word of hope.
In an evangelizing church, it should be a goal to touch people’s hearts and make them feel so welcomed that they never want to leave. But sadly, in some places, attendees experience distance, apathy or some other experience that alienates.
Gateway moments are precious opportunities to first extend the love of Jesus and do what is right and necessary in obedience to our scriptural teachings.
Some questions for reflection to prepare for gateway moments might include:
- Is everyone on the staff and in our parish community formed and trained to love inquirers and strangers like they do themselves?
- Do we lavish them with welcome, with opportunities to inquire and have conversations about the faith, sharing a handshake, a hug or a tissue to wipe away tears, with genuine warmth?
- Does our parish create this welcoming hospitable culture as mentioned in our synod?
- Do we radiate the joy of the Gospel?
- Do we really welcome the stranger at Mass and at other opportunities?
- Do we make certain not only to greet them at their arrival, but visit with them, speak with them, follow up with them after the gateway moment has ended, inviting them into parish life?
- Do we offer them the brotherly and sisterly love of a stranger so that they are a stranger no longer?
The “stranger” in our parish should always, but especially at gateway moments, feel as much a part of the church community as those who have been there for decades.
As faith communities prayerfully reflect on these questions and others to support those in gateway moments, times of sadness as well as joy, we recall the words of Pope Francis, who says that “we are made for mission.” Mission begins with hospitality.
Dominican Father David Caron is the archdiocesan vicar for evangelization.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.