Monday, May 28, 2012

More Than A Handout: A Place at the Table.

Because our church is one of the more beautiful churches in the area, we get an intersting assortment of requests for weddings.  A few years ago I remember taking a phone call from a woman who wanted to schedule a wedding at our parish.  "Sure," I told her.  As I often do, I told her that she and her fiance should introduce themselves to me after Sunday Mass so that we can schedule an appointment.  This often takes people by surprise, but I've decided that expecting couples to be Mass attendees is not unreasonable (unless, of course, one of them isn't Catholic or they live somewhere else).  The woman said, "I'm not getting married.  I'm calling for my son."  "Why isn't he calling himself," I asked.  She informed me that the couple has a lot of things to take care of for the wedding--flowers, receptions, invitations, a band, etc--so they are dividing up the responsibilities.  So, the mother of the groom will "be taking care of all of the church stuff."  If there are any future grooms or brides reading this, I suggest that you do not have your mother call the priest to schedule a wedding.  We're kind of funny that way.  We actually prefer to talk to the two individuals getting married. 

Whenever I meet with couples, I stress to them my expectation that I am going to see them at Mass each Sunday.  I have found that almost all of the couples respect that.  And, despite the awkwardness that I sometimes feel when I make that clear, I have found great success.  Every Sunday I see at Mass couples who were not coming to Mass before they came to get married.  Now, married three, four, nine years later, I happily greet them as they make their way across the street for Mass.  The same holds true for couples who have brought their children here for baptism.  Is there a 100% success rate?  No, not even close.  But, the grace of God at work in one couple far outweighs a hundred couples who do not respond to the invitation. 

About a year ago, a young couple came to me and asked me to fill out the paperwork for their marriage.  The marriage is to take place out of country.  Both persons are from different countries and one of them was not Catholic.  It is a paperwork disaster for a priest!  They suggested that the man who is not Catholic might become Catholic, but I had the sense that maybe they thought he "had to" become Catholic in order to get married.  But, he said he wanted to attend our RCIA classes to see if it was something he wanted to do.  To my delight, they attended RCIA together for the past year and were at Mass here each Sunday.

Yesterday, on the Solemnity of Pentecost, I received this young man from Africa into the Catholic Church and confirmed him.  After Mass, when I came back into church after greeting the people outside, this couple was surrounded by parishioners who were congratulating them.  The Holy Spirit confirms us in the faith so that we might become more apt witnesses to the faith.  Yesterday, probably without fully appreciating it, this young man became a great witness to a congregation of Catholics.  We saw a young man joyfully embracing the Catholic life.  It was a great way to live Pentecost!

Without doubt, one of the greatest aspects of a parish's life is the RCIA.  This year, our parish baptized several new Catholics at the Easter Vigil and received into the Church and confirmed several others.  This is a great sign of life. Their immersion into the Christian mysteries benefits not only them but the whole Church.  People yesterday in my parish were filled with such great joy when they saw that young man confirmed.  Alleluia!

It is true that all some people need is an invitation.  Others only need somebody who will welcome them when they themselves approach with curiosity or interest.  But, sometimes a little pressure might be needed.  "Okay, you are asking the parish and me to provide a place for your marriage and for me to meet with you regularly.  So, I'm asking you to be just as committed to the parish by attending the Sunday Mass.  Is that reasonable?"  Anybody with any sense at all appreciates that the priest should be encouraging them to attend Mass on Sunday.  Besides, the Holy Spirit himself comes as fire on the feast of Pentecost.  Nothing gets us moving in the right direction more than the sublte pressure of a few flames!

Some people come to the Church and knock on the door and want desperately to come in.  They're the easy ones!  Others come to the Church, knock on the door and want a handout only.  They want their wedding on this particular day at this particular time and that's it.  They expect the right answer and feel that they owe nothing in return.  A pastor has to figure out how to get those persons off the porch and into the door.  For some, all it takes is a warm smile.  But, for others, they may need a little more.  What I've discovered is that the vast majority of couples--even if they are not practicing the Faith--are happy for the opportunity to discuss it and are grateful that there is somebody reminding them about Mass.  When years later I see these couples holding hands and coming to Mass together, I never regret having put them a little bit on the spot one day. 

Welcoming (and gently encouraging!) people into the Church and into the practice of the Faith is a great joy as a priest.  This Pentecost, I looked about my congregation and was struck by how beautifully the Holy Spirit is still at work in the life of the Church.  I could see all sorts of individuals who were away from the practice of the Faith at different moments in their lives, people who were trapped in some sort of sin and who have been set free, people who were lost and have returned home.  The Holy Spirit is still moving souls and animating them.  He breathes new life and renews us daily and is making all things new in Christ.

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