Catholics Need to Hear Welcoming Messages to Return to Mass

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(CNS) — The mere act of lifting the dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation as the coronavirus pandemic eases won’t be enough to get Catholics to come back to church, and the Diocese of St. Petersburg is actively working to bring people back.

“Just opening our doors and waiting for folks to come is a failed strategy for generations, much less for today’s culture,” said Marcel LeJeune, founder and president of Catholic Missionary Disciples, in a July 12 email to Catholic News Service.

Research by the Catholic Leadership Institute, based in Pennsylvania, indicates that 25%-27% of Massgoing Catholics say they go to church “out of habit,” according to institute president Dan Cellucci. Another 4%-6%, he added, call themselves “Catholics in name only.” The research, Cellucci said, is based on 300,000 parishioners who speak one of 14 languages in 43 U.S. dioceses.

Parishes that didn’t do anything to keep in touch with their parishioners are “most at risk” of membership drop-off, Cellucci told CNS in a July 14 phone interview.

The parishes “holding their own,” he said, or have been thriving “are ones that have actually been in relationship with their people. They’ve made a deep bond of community and they work really hard at that. They check in with their parishioners, issue invitations — all the hallmarks of what we know to be practices of good evangelizing all the time.”

Shouldn’t the parishioners return on their own? “Theoretically, they should do that because of their Sunday obligation,” Cellucci replied, “but that’s not our mindset and we have to recognize that.”

The issue has weighed on the mind of bishops and pastors for some time. In a letter to all pastors and parish staff, Bishop Gregory Parkes of the Diocese of St. Petersburg urged all Catholics to welcome and invite people back to Mass.

“Christ is calling us to reach out to those not currently attending Sunday Mass and invite them back. While our homebound population has increased during the pandemic, there are many healthy people who have not yet returned to Mass. These individuals and families need to hear a message of invitation and hope. They need a warm greeting at the door and a caring community attentive to their needs,” said Bishop Parkes

Outreach and evangelization are critical so that all can come to know the love and mercy of Jesus Christ.

“What we need to do now more than ever is ramp up our hospitality and invite people to hang out with us at the parish. We can no longer wait for people; we need to go out and find them,” said Michael McCallion, a theology professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, during an interview with Detroit Catholic, the online news outlet for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

“Each parish should have staff dedicated to a radical ministry of hospitality based on their own individual community with social events every week, not every month,” he added.

The Diocese of St. Petersburg Office of Communication created a Welcoming You initiative that includes a “Ten Step Toolkit” for becoming a welcoming parish. The toolkit includes a script for what to say when calling a parishioner and inviting him or her back to Mass. There is a Communications Resource page that includes an example video of a pastor welcoming people to Mass.

Charmaine Carter, Director of Adult Faith Formation at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg has formed a team to take parish hospitality to a new level. They have placed large “Welcoming You” banners in English and Spanish at the entrances of the church and smiling faces greet each person. The goal is to let people know they are seen and appreciated.

“We want to ramp up our team so that every door is covered and everyone who walks through the door feels very welcomed and as they leave they are invited back. Also, if they have any needs while they are with us, we can be easily identified and ready to assist,” said Carter.

Many parishes “will continue streaming” Masses even though the general dispensation to attend Sunday Mass was lifted in May. But a cautionary note on that comes from Tamra Hull Fromm, director of discipleship and an instructor at the Catholic Biblical School of Michigan.

“When it comes to Mass attendance, we need to ask where people were in terms of their understanding of the sacraments before the pandemic. Do they have an understanding of how the sacraments nourish the faith and, therefore, are part of the routine of nurturing that faith?” Fromm told Detroit Catholic. “If they don’t understand the Eucharist, why would they come back?”

Fromm added, “Adoration on a screen can shift our minds and shift our theology. “We’re disembodied with digital culture, making it tempting for some to move away from the celebration of the Mass and the importance of the Eucharist.”

LeJeune, in an undated Catholic Missionary Disciples blog posting, said, “Catholic leaders need to stop asking, ‘How do we get back to pre-COVID days?’ … Our job has never been to maintain institutions. It is to make disciples.”

To do that, leaders need to envision “a post-COVID parish,” he said. “The pandemic gives us a unique opportunity. Still, big changes need to be bathed in discernment and prayer.” He added, “Mission tells us why we exist. It is the engine that drives the car. We don’t get anywhere without it.”

Four of LeJeune’s prescriptions for living in a post-pandemic parish are: “Let us love each other fully. Let us serve our communities. Let us fight for what is true and good,” and “Let us not settle for what our parishes looked like in the past.”

By Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service, Contributing to this story were Teresa Peterson, Karla Dorweiler, Daniel Meloy, Richard Szczepanowski and Joseph P. Owens.

(CNS photo/courtesy Detroit Catholic, Permission Granted to