One of the benefits of having been in the same parish for a while is that I not only know the faithful parishioners fairly well, but I have also come to know the not so faithful parishioners. Perhaps, I bump into them at the occasional party or as I'm walking down the street. Maybe it is a police officer who always stops to talk to me or the owner of a local restaurant who consistently shows great kindness to me. Sometimes they express remorse or guilt for not coming to church. Other times, they might make a joke about lightening striking them. Other times, they don't mention it. Sometimes, I mention it. "We miss you. Don't wait too long to come back."
As time passes, I've realized something about these people and me: I really and truly miss them. The other day, I met a high school student who comes only occasionally to Mass. I really didn't know him at all. We chatted for a little while as we were working on some project together. Afterwards it struck me that having spent an hour or two with that kid, I miss him. I miss that he is not with us more. Our parish would be so much better with him. The cop whom I always invite to church: It isn't because I'm trying to coerce him into fulfilling his responsibility. I invite him because I know it would be good for him, good for our parish, and good for lots of other people. I invite him because I miss him.
I've learned that a lot of parish priesthood is meeting people on their turf--literally and figuratively. When they see that the priest is interested--truly interested--in them, then the proposal to return to the Church is more easily accepted. And, in the instances where it has not yet been accepted, I think these persons see in their friendship with me that the door still stands open to them. Our encounters serve as a reminder to them that the Church loves them and wants them.
As Christmas approaches, I'm thinking and praying for these persons whom I truly miss. Some of them I've met many times and am happy to be called their friend. Others, I haven't met yet. But, I miss them nonetheless. I hope this Christmas they discover what they've been missing. And, I hope that I find what I've been missing: them.