The death of Pope Benedict XVI several weeks ago propelled me into a memory— a couple of memories, actually— about my experiences of welcome, or unwelcome, in the Roman Catholic Church. I’ve had a decidedly mixed experience. In reflecting on those experiences, I’ve started to wonder quite a lot about what sort of welcome we offer at Old South, especially for special services in which we have visitors. More on that in a bit. I’ll start with the memory part.
When my husband’s grandmother died in 2008, we attended her funeral mass in New York. We (my husband, myself and our kids) sat near the front of the sanctuary with the rest of the family. When it came to communion, the congregation was treated to a stern announcement from the officiating priest, regarding who was eligible, or not, to receive the sacrament. I believe it was Pope Benedict’s idea to tighten things up. If you weren’t a Roman Catholic in good standing, you were not allowed. And, somehow the Pope thought it a good idea to make this— I mean it wasn’t exactly a change in policy— a more sharply worded statement, just in case people hadn’t been listening, or didn’t understand that Catholics have certain standards when it came to this particular sacrament.
Since my husband, my kids and I were not practicing Roman Catholics, we just stood there, as everyone else— including the entire family block, except for us— went forward to receive the sacrament. I hadn’t planned on going forward, but the priest’s statement made me want to go to the front and tell him directly that I had no intention of participating in the sacrament, but I didn’t appreciate the feeling of not being welcome in that house of worship, and I didn’t appreciate the sense of being separated in such a public way, like sheep and goats, in the midst of a holy ritual of the church, even if I did not directly participate in it.
I remember feeling not only angry, but disappointed. By that time, so many of the Church’s sins had been exposed. Why did the Pope find it necessary to dig in and cling more strongly to the Church’s sense of its own supposed holiness?
Perhaps I wouldn’t have felt quite so agitated if I hadn’t experienced something quite different years before. When my husband and I were not yet husband and wife, but we were planning to get married, we visited the Roman Catholic graduate student chaplain at the parish in Harvard Square. At the time, Joseph was a practicing Catholic. Since I was on the path to becoming an ordained Protestant minister, we had a few things to work out. We had decided that we would attend a Protestant church as a family and, in return, I agreed to change my last name, so that we would have one family name. But, it was important to him that our marriage be recognized by the Catholic church. What did we need to do to make that happen? The short answer, from Father George, was that we needed to attend a marriage preparation seminar. He pulled out the area schedule of such classes and clearly indicated to us that, given our situation, we should make an effort to attend a class in Harvard Square, but if the schedule didn’t work for us, there were a few other places that would be welcoming. And, then he circled another group of churches and told us not to go to any of those. We would not be welcomed.
We attended one of the Harvard Square sessions. For St. Paul’s, marriage preparation was one long Saturday. I really don’t remember much of it (it happened almost 29 years ago!). But, I do remember that after lunch, the head priest at the church came into the large meeting space (there were a lot of people there) and asked the “non-Catholics” to raise their hands. I, along with quite a few others, looked around the room and tentatively started to raise our hands. What was going to happen? A scolding or shaming of some kind? Not at all. Once our hands were raised, he offered us a clear and joyful message of gratitude. He thanked us for taking the wishes of our future spouse seriously enough to have our marriage recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, by attending this marriage preparation day.
How hard was that? I remember my first-ever warm and fuzzy feeling toward Roman Catholicism. Alas, it didn’t last long.
I’ve found myself reflecting not only on my own experiences of welcome, or not, in religious traditions that are not my own, but my own attempts at creating a welcoming atmosphere at Old South. I’m increasingly aware that I need to do a better job. Special services, like funerals, are where I’ve started to sense the significance of welcome. As worship attendance declines, so does the general understanding of “churchy” vocabulary words. During the last couple of funerals I’ve led, it has started to occur to me that I need to explain things, even going so far as making sure the congregation knows what a “hymn” is and a “hymnal.” Not only do we need to print out the words to the Lord’s Prayer, but I need to explain—briefly— what it is and why we pray it. Those who do not attend Christian worship may not pray along with the Prayer, but they should be aware of what it is. It’s an important part of welcoming.
It’s a strange thing to gaze upon a funeral congregation and realize that there are quite a few faces looking confused and disoriented. If the only time they have ever entered a church for a service is for a funeral, I suspect that much of what we do seems strange. I could just dig in and let them all figure it out for themselves. It’s not my fault they don’t understand church. While I don’t think funerals are the best places for proselytizing, they are a good opportunity for churches to show warmth and welcome, to demonstrate some of that loving God and loving neighbor thing that we are told, quite clearly, should be at the top of our “to do” list— by the big guy himself.
To welcome or not to welcome? It’s not really a question, if the faith means as much to you as you say it does.