The Welcome Factor

“The liturgy derives its greatness from what it is, not from what we do with it.”~ Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Collected Works Theology of the Liturgy, Joseph Ratzinger, Ignatius Press)

A while back, I wrote about the greeter phenomenon at Catholic parishes. Visiting a parish out of state on a Sunday morning, I was struck by the number of times I was welcomed to the parish. First, entering the church, I was greeted by not one, but two designated “Greeters” within thirty seconds. Seated in the pew, I was greeted by someone at the lectern, who asked everyone to greet those around them before Mass began. And of course, there was the prolonged sign of peace prior to Communion. It was a bit much, and it all seemed forced.

I’ve often noticed that when “experts” on liturgical committees convene to discuss ways to improve parish and liturgical life, one of, if not the first thing on the list is, “make the liturgy a more welcoming experience.” Of course, no one should feel unwelcome. But this extended fixation on welcome often eclipses other elements that are necessary for a correct understanding of what liturgy actually is. The “welcome factor” is often used to transform liturgy into an event that begins and ends with us, instead of God. Ensuring people “feel welcome” has become the summum bonum of parish life. Adoration, reverence and mystery have all-too-often been sacrificed in the name of making the church a more “welcoming place.”

In reality, the implementation of the “welcome factor” often translates to that which is more in line with the demands of mainstream, egalitarian cultural trends (casual, comfortable, familiar, desacralized). Anything associated with the traditional liturgy is stripped away because it is seen as foreign, uncomfortable, distant, mysterious…in other words, unwelcoming.

What has taken place over the past several decades to ensure that people “feel more welcome” at church?

  • The interiors of countless churches have been radically reoriented, breaking away from centuries of architectural tradition (that existed for a reason), to make them more “welcoming” spaces.

    A church radically transformed to welcome

  • We’ve virtually abandoned the use of Latin and Gregorian chant, substituting songs inspired by folk music and other banal contemporary styles to give the church a more “welcoming” feel.
  • We’ve created various “ministries,” allowing laity to take over liturgical responsibilities, long-reserved (for a reason) to the priest or deacon, to make people feel more “welcome” in the church.
  • Homilies often steer clear of unpopular Church teaching on family and life issues because they may make some in the pews feel uncomfortable.
  • Emphasis on worthiness to receive Communion has been abandoned in many parishes so that no one feels unwelcome during Communion.

“All are Welcome” (popular at Protestant and Catholic parishes alike) has become the unofficial theme song of many Catholic churches. Welcome! Welcome! Welcome! Get it? The bottom line is, if this or that is done in the name of welcoming, there’s not much that’s off limits when it comes to tinkering with liturgy.

But why do we participate in liturgy? Why go to church in the first place? In his 1947 book entitled The Mass, Dom Bede Lebbe, O.S.B. gives the answer.

God is the primary end of liturgical prayer and worship. The prayers of the liturgy are instinctive cries for God’s assistance: man is so frail, he depends so utterly on God, that his prayers must naturally recognize that all comes to him from his Father in Heaven. It demands an attitude of adoration, a sense of wonder and joy and gratitude at the contemplation of the divine mysteries. . . .

Liturgy is the public adoration and prayer of the Church, Spouse of Christ, presented to the Father by Jesus Christ.

We must keep our personal needs in the second rank, and think first of the great duty of honoring God, and sanctifying souls. Even had we no request to make, prayer would still remain a fundamental duty for us. The first characteristic of the Liturgy is a profound reverence and adoration.

“Profound reverence and adoration.” No mention is made of the “welcome factor.” Liturgy is not about me, or my feelings. But it seems like all too often, that’s the starting point for today. Again, everyone at a parish should experience a welcoming community. What I’m talking about is a common distortion and exaggeration of what is, in and of itself, a good thing. There’s a big difference (that’s often blurred) between feeling welcome and feeling comfortable. Sometimes hearing the truth should make us squirm a bit.

Is it fair to say that, with so much emphasis constantly being placed on us and on making sure we feel welcome, we’ve lost this sense of reverence and adoration in our liturgy? Pope Francis echoed these sentiments a few years back when he lamented that, as Catholics, “we have lost a bit the sense of adoration” when it comes to our approach to liturgy. On another occasion, he said, “The liturgy is to really enter into the mystery of God, to allow ourselves to be brought to the mystery and to be in the mystery.”

If parishes become places where we can encounter and enter into the mystery and beauty of God’s presence among us in the Sacrifice of the Mass, then people will be drawn in. The pews will be filled with souls, because beauty and mystery are always attractive. Feeling welcome is one thing. Experiencing heaven is even better.

*Featured image: Midnight Mass at London Oratory.