The welcoming community

Building community with umbrellas

Summer is one of our main times for travel. And part of traveling, for many of us, is visiting a different parish for Sunday Mass. For me, these visits offer a chance to see how other places “do church.”

How does a parish welcome people? What’s its music like? What’s in the announcements? What did I learn from the homily? Was it hard to figure out how to get to Communion?

One neat thing I’ve noticed in one of our area’s top tourist spots is that the pastor, before Mass, welcomes visitors and asks for anyone celebrating a birthday or an anniversary to stand and be congratulated. It doesn’t matter if they are parish members or one-time visitors — all are welcome to stand for well wishes and blessings. Suddenly, strangers in town become part of the community — they feel a link, even with their slightly self-conscious smiles.

We all know church attendance in the U.S. has been declining. CARA statistics report that, in 1965, 55 percent of Catholics attended Mass regularly; by 2016, that number had dropped to 22 percent.

Bishops and parish leaders have struggled to find ways to reverse the trend. How do we encourage people to come to Mass?

William Simon Jr. has written “Great Catholic Parishes: A Living Mosaic” (Ave Maria Press, 2016). In it, one of his four markers of a great parish is that it “evangelizes in intentional, structured ways.” Now that sounds complicated, involving lots of time, planning and personnel involvement. And it can become a big endeavor. However, it can start small.

Welcoming visitors — and regular members — and learning about their birthdays is just one quick way to start. And it takes little time and no new personnel.

Both Simon and the authors of an earlier book, which many parishes in our diocese have used —“Rebuilt: Awakening the Faithful, Reaching the Lost, and Making Church Matter” (Ave Maria Press, 2012) — offers a suggestion for the centerpiece for great parishes: the Sunday experience.

Simon calls this “excelling on Sundays.” Fr. White and Thomas Corcoran of the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Md., in “Rebuilt,” urged parishes to focus their resources and efforts on the weekend experience. And they don’t just mean what happens inside the church: their Baltimore suburban parish has a parking ministry, children’s events and a coffee bar. Yes, each weekend. Of course, they also emphasize music ministry and homilies.

His parish’s weekend Mass attendance went from 1,500 to 4,000. Of course, success doesn’t come overnight. It took intentional planning and a lot of work. Still, little efforts can start the process rolling anywhere.

For example: A few weeks ago, I attended my own parish. We came outdoors after Mass to find it pouring. Not just rain, but a Noah-level downpour, with sheets of water cascading off the roof. Many of us stood there in dismay, peering from the dry carport out to our cars, far across a parking lot and wondering if we needed a raft.

The worship coordinator went to the storage closet, pulled out three golf umbrellas and began walking people to their cars. The hospitality ministers took her cue and did the same. Some of the men offered to take keys from the elderly to shuttle their cars back under the carport.

Suddenly a downpour went from dismay to a bonding experience. Strangers began chatting together, laughing about the rain, as they waited their turn for an umbrella, or for their cars. Community was being formed and discipleship was being practiced.

All it took was a few umbrellas. Sounds like a good start toward building a great parish.