What is a welcoming church?

Last Sunday at Mass, the Parish Priest, a sensible, experienced man, mentioned that next week we’d have First Communion, and increased numbers of people were expected at Mass.

Then he smiled and said: ‘We probably won’t see them again the following week, but that’s OK.’

I was pleased to hear that.

It is of the very nature of Catholicism that we welcome people but don’t demand they conform to our expectations.

We’re not a sectarian or exclusive church. The very word ‘catholic’ means universal, big, and embracing. I’m reminded of debates at clergy conferences about whether priests should baptise the children of non-practising Catholics. My view has always been ‘yes’, reach out to people, be like Jesus and welcome them.

But there’s a flip side to this.

Earlier this month in La Croix, the bishop of Odienné in West Africa’s Ivory Coast, Alain Clément Amiézi, complained that ‘People are baptised without becoming Christian, the sacraments are given without evangelising.’

He says that ‘the number of faithful who are truly committed to … the virtues of the gospel is infinitesimal.’

Speaking of African converts, he said that just being seen at church is insufficient, and that committed Christians have to break the tribal logic of social convention and be willing to critique societal norms and practices in the light of the gospel.

That requires a spirituality of faith and courage.

My purpose here is not to critique of African Christianity. You can see exactly the same superficiality in the conversion of Europe in the first millennium.

We have an entirely romanticised notion of the medieval ‘ages of faith’ and the notion of Ireland as ‘the island of saints and scholars.’

Recently historians like Anton Wessels and Jan Romein have questioned whether Europe was ever really Christian. Wessels argues that medieval missionaries attempted to convert pagan Europe by Christianising the culture, and transforming it by re-interpreting it.

Jan Romein says that ‘medieval Christianity was only a thin veneer,’ a superficial overlay with people’s basic pagan beliefs remaining unchanged.

This is understandable when mass baptisms followed the conversion of the local ruler or when people like the Saxons under Charlemagne were faced with the choice of either baptism or death.

The church has always embraced people with different levels of commitment

The result was that medieval ‘Christendom’, the combined power of church and state, dominated people’s lives from birth to death. Sure, there were many people in the medieval period deeply committed to the teaching and person of Jesus and to a life of service, but they were the small minority.

Another historian writing in this vein is Frenchman Jean Delumeau, whose work focuses specifically on early modern Catholicism after the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the period that still influences us today.

He says that as late as the seventeenth century, ‘the intellectual and psychological climate [of Europeans] … was characterised by a profound unfamiliarity with the basics of Christianity, and by a persistent pagan mentality.’

While Christendom still prevailed, there was a thriving underworld in which sub-Christian beliefs and pagan folk practices flourished.

When enclosure and a population explosion turned the landless peasantry into the urban working class in the emerging industrial cities of the early nineteenth century, their superficial faith quickly disappeared.

Delumeau argues that the church didn’t lose the working class; they were never really Christian in the first place.

Now, this may be interesting historically, but you’re probably asking: what’s the point? The answer: the church has always embraced people with different levels of commitment.

Actually, modern secularism has done Christianity a big favour. First, by closing down Christendom and separating church and state; and secondly, by removing the social supports that made church-going ‘respectable’. People can now choose to be or not to be Catholic.

Nowadays, particularly following the sexual abuse crisis and the failure of the church to address the issues that concern our contemporaries, commitment to faith and Catholicism is seen by many as irresponsible, if not unethical.

People deeply committed to the gospel is small

In addition, to many, the church projects an unattractive, unwelcoming image and seems besotted with a narrow range of issues focusing on gender, sex, reproduction and euthanasia, leading to the impression of a closed-door, hard-nosed, uncompromising institution.

The damage done to the church by a ‘boots-and-all’ approach is terrible.

In this context, we should, like my PP, be welcoming people.

Yes, it’s true that the number of people deeply committed to the gospel is small, but that doesn’t make us judges of the lives of others.

The word ‘Catholic’ is derived from the Greek ‘katholikos’ meaning universal, of the whole, and the entire tradition is the very opposite of sectarian, particularist, or narrow. It is most truly itself when it’s embracing and inclusive.

This is where I think Catholic schools have been particularly successful.

With only a tiny number of students coming from committed-Catholic households and increasing numbers of non-Catholic students (in Sydney archdiocesan schools about 25 per cent and in South Australia 44 percent), the schools face a real challenge to form an approach to life that is genuinely Christian and Catholic, yet allows room for freedom of conscience to operate.

They need to form what theologian David Tracy has called a ‘catholic imagination.’

That is the whole educational ethos of the school must be founded in the Christ-like values of love, compassion, acceptance and forgiveness and on a genuinely Catholic understanding of inclusivity and freedom of conscience.

For sure, staff, students and parents need to know they are embracing a whole ‘package’ when they come to a Catholic school, including religious education, liturgy, retreat days and explicitly Catholic values and spirituality.

That said, these are expressed in a welcoming, embracing way; no one should have Catholicism forced on them. And here ’embracing’ includes LGBTQI+ students.

Here we’re back with my PP last Sunday. We welcome people, whether we see them next week or not. Just like Jesus, really!

  • Paul Collins is the author of 15 books, several of which focus on church governance and Australian Catholicism.
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
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