It may be his first parish leadership assignment after 30 years in Catholic education as a teacher and administrator, but Father Tom Elewaut has needed no instructional manual to determine the most important element of a Christ-centered parish community: welcome.
For the six years he has headed Mission San Buenaventura in Ventura, California, Father Elewaut takes time after each Sunday Mass to greet everyone and anyone, parishioner or not, with a handshake, a smile and a hearty hello.
At every Mass at which he presides, Father Elewaut invites visitors to stand and announce where they are visiting from, to acknowledge their presence with applause from the assembly and to make sure the ushers gift each visitor with a prayer card from the historic mission parish, founded by St. Junipero Serra in 1782.
“It is our privilege and our joy to welcome each of you,” he tells them with a smile, “and we hope you will return.”
Father Elewaut also makes it a point at liturgies where there are likely to be people who are either not Catholic or non-practicing Catholics — Christmas and Easter, for example, or funerals and weddings — to let them know that “you have a home here at the mission, and you are always welcome.”
But the genial pastor — whose parish’s weekly collections have nearly doubled over his six years of leadership — is simply modeling what all Catholics are called to do, as St. Paul told the Romans: “Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15:7).
And throughout the U.S., many Catholic parishes make “welcome” the guidepost in their efforts to evangelize their communities. Nor do they rely on their pastor to set the tone or do the work.
One such parish is Sacred Heart Church in Royersford, Pennsylvania, which three years ago established a welcome ministry at the behest of its parish council.
Each week, a core group of about 20 parishioners opens the doors and greets all Massgoers, parishioners and visitors alike, as they enter the church to attend Sacred Heart’s four weekend Masses.
The “welcome ministers” (whose ranks swell at Christmastime) are a representation of all age groups and parish organizations, from Boy Scouts and Catholic Youth Organization sports teams to the “Silver Liners” (those over age 55), from housewives to executives and working professionals.
Welcome ministers are also on hand after Mass to thank people for attending, to provide parish information to those who request it and to offer them hospitality in the downstairs “Fellowship Cafe.”
“It’s usually nothing fancy, just coffee and doughnuts,” smiles Pam Galbraith, welcome ministry director, “but it is an opportunity for everyone, especially newcomers, to get acquainted with one another, to learn more about what we do and who we are.”
The response to the welcome ministry, Galbraith adds, has been very favorable.
“People tell us they like our liturgies, our music, our homilies,” she says, “but they also like and appreciate that our people are very welcoming. And we do get visitors who are from other parishes, as well as people who are coming back to church after being away for whatever reason. This is an opportunity to evangelize, to let people know that our parish is a place that welcomes everyone.”
At the Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland, the parish on which Sacred Heart modeled its efforts, hospitality teams engage parishioners in every activity from greeting and directing arrivals in the parking lot to guiding guests to seats inside the sanctuary, to assisting with weddings and baptisms.
And, as at Sacred Heart, all are welcome to participate in this ministry.
“It doesn’t matter who or how old you are,” says Galbraith of Sacred Heart. “All you need to be is enthusiastic, outgoing and happy to welcome people to your spiritual home.”
And shouldn’t that describe every follower of Christ?
Catholic journalist Mike Nelson writes from Southern California.