By Archbishop William E. Lori
When you arrive at your parish church for Mass on Christmas Eve, what is the first thing you notice? I’ll wager it’s the crowded parking lot. So, it is likely that the second thing you will notice is that the church is crowded. In fact, you might not be able to find a seat or you may find yourself at a Mass celebrated, not in the parish church, but in the church hall or the school gymnasium. I can already hear the complaints. “I come here every Sunday and these people are in my pew. Where are they the rest of the time?”
Where indeed are all these people week after week? And who are they, anyway? And what is our responsibility toward them?
To begin with, most of them are fellow Catholics. And while there are typically some out-of-town visitors in the mix, most of them are local parishioners who only come to Mass on Christmas and Easter.
Some are disaffected Catholics. Even if they attend Mass once or twice a year, they are angry at the church, either for what it teaches or because they feel they were mistreated by someone representing the church. Others never really encountered the Lord or knew their faith. Still others did not feel welcomed in their parish church or failed to find help at a time of need. And, while we’re at it, let’s not forget the all-too-natural tendency of fallen human nature to drift away from God and the things of God.
So, when we arrive at Mass this Christmas, what should be our reaction to all such people? Of course, we should gladly welcome them, even if it means giving up our usual parking place or our favorite pew. Full churches should be our goal every week and making others feel like a source of inconvenience or as outsiders will certainly not make them want to return the rest of the year! But I think our response should go deeper.
First, we should examine our own consciences, not theirs. As a priest looking out from the altar at a packed church, I ask what I may have said or done to alienate people from the church. Has my proclamation of the Gospel been credible? Have I failed to give people reasons to practice their faith and pass it along to their children? Actually, these are questions we can all ask ourselves.
Second, we should pray for those who are paying their annual or semi-annual visit to the parish church. Jesus came into the world not merely to save us but also to save them. During Mass we should pray that they will be moved to open their hearts to the Lord and find their way back home to the church. In the same breath, we should pray for ourselves that, somehow, we may be the Lord’s instruments in helping bring at least someone back to the fold.
Third, we should ask the Lord to help us take some measure of responsibility for our normally absent brothers and sisters. After all, a huge task awaits the church in our times. It is up to the pope and bishops to lead, but as Pope St. John Paul II taught so clearly, the laity are the primary agents in spreading the Gospel in our times. Surely it means bearing witness to the joy of the Gospel by the goodness of our lives. It also means a readiness on our part to listen to and walk with those who no longer practice their faith. A church that does not listen to the reasons why people have left will not be in a good position to give them reasons why they should return.
So, as you arrive at Mass this Christmas, please join me in resolving to give the Newborn Savior a gift: resolve to bring at least one person back to the practice of faith in the coming year. What a wonderful gift for the Lord, for the church, and for those whose lives you will touch.
Read more from Archbishop Lori here.