One afternoon, six years ago, I drove by my local, Catholic Church “just to see.” I didn’t stop. I kept driving. A few days later, I circled the neighborhood several times. Then one day, I daringly pulled into the parking lot. I was terribly curious and terribly terrified.
I remember there was a banner hanging on one of the light poles. Welcome, it said. Still, I wasn’t sure. Did welcome really mean welcome? So, I hunkered deep in my car and Googled the church office phone number. With shaking fingers, I dialed. A wobbly but matter-of-fact old lady voice answered: “Hello! St. Cecilia’s!”
I took a deep breath. “Um. Hi. I was just. Well, I was wondering if non-Catholics can go inside your church?”
“Why, of course, honey! Go right on in and pray!”
“Oh! You mean. RIGHT NOW? Like, the church is open right now?”
She cackled, deliciously. “Why of course it’s open! It’s only 2 o’clock in the afternoon!”
That was my first “real” time inside a Catholic church (read about what I saw that day on page 179 of my book). What I didn’t elaborate on in my book but what I realize now is that this discovery– Catholic churches are open almost all the time–was huge for me.
When I was a Protestant, church doors were locked up Monday-Saturday. We only opened for meetings. But in Catholic churches, the doors were always open. This became so meaningful for me, symbolically and practically.
Practically speaking, as a mother of five young children it was hard for me to get to church. I so appreciated that I could dash in for ten minutes between bottles and naps and laundry. I didn’t have to dress up or put on my Happy Church Lady face (back then, all I had was an Exhausted-Sleep-Deprived-Mommy-Face). Best of all, I didn’t have to wait until Wednesday night Bible Study at 7:30pm. Whether I went at 6:30am or 2:22pm, the Catholic Church was always open.
Symbolically, this openness demonstrated a posture of hospitality. The church didn’t expect me to come to God on its timeline. It just unlocked its doors, held Mass for whoever showed up and then stayed open for prayer and meditation.
This always openness seems like a small thing to me now. Of course the Catholic Church is open! But I need to remind myself that this openness, this posture and practice of generous hospitality was a huge and vital part of my first, real-life encounter with Catholic practice. Without that practice of openness, I might have never stepped foot into a Catholic church because I wasn’t ready to attend an actual Mass. I needed to scope things out first. Feel my way into it. Read my way in. Listen my way in. Watch EWTN my way in.
Even the process of entering the church was open, slow and careful. It took a whole year of discerning and inquiry. They called it RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). I never felt like the church was trying to sell me something. Or get something from me. The priest never gave a sales pitch about All The Heavenly Prizes You’ll Win If You Join Our Church! We talked, instead, about suffering. And struggle. And giving to the poor.
For all the horror stories I’d read about the Catholic church and for all the terrible history I knew, the actual practice of ordinary, everyday Catholics was quiet, unassuming and welcoming. Yes, they had dogma but they weren’t dogmatic. Yes, they were welcoming but it wasn’t an Overwhelming-High-Octane-Welcoming-Committee. There weren’t any cheesy little coffee mugs given out to newcomers. Nobody got up in my space, shook my hand and demanded to hear my “testimony.” We were all just humans together. And that was enough.
True hospitality, I’ve learned, seeks only to serve. The spiritual practice of hospitality is kind of about invisibility–getting yourself out of the way so others might encounter God. It’s not about enforcing codes, rules, stipulations and locking the doors of Heaven until everyone has met our requirements. We’re our brother’s keeper, not Heaven’s gatekeepers.
Jesus has already unlocked the door and flung wide the gates of Heaven. All we need to do is welcome people in.