Among the buzzwords associated with the upcoming Synod on Synodality is “welcoming.” We are told that we need to be a “welcoming” Church with the suggestion that, so far, we haven’t been. Expect “welcoming” to be bandied about frequently in the coming months.
I’ve argued elsewhere that behind this “welcoming” veneer lies an ecclesiology alien to the Church’s. The Church is not primarily a social club of the “I’m OK, you’re OK—and that’s how God made us!” It is a divinely established institution whose raison d’être is to make Christ present here and now and continue proclaiming His message. That message does not affirm human OK-ness. To the contrary, it recognizes, “I’m not OK, you’re not OK, but Christ can make us OK if we metanoeite!” That’s our “Good News,” our Gospel.
μετανοεῖτε (Mark 1:15) is translated as “repent,” but the literal meaning of the Greek is “to change one’s mind.” The Church’s welcome is to “take us as we are,” that is, as sinners, but not to leave us there. We are invited to change the way we think about what is the way, truth, and life.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
The Church welcomes us to change how we think about these things. What I am hearing from Synodal “listening” sessions is not that message but, instead, how the Church needs to change how she thinks about things.
That is a fundamentally different message, ecclesiology, Gospel.
Lest one be accused of clinging to old ways, let us reflect on how the Mass, which embodies the sacrament that is the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, no. 11) addresses the question of “welcome.” It ought to give us normative direction because liturgy involves lex orandi, lex credendi—how we pray expresses what we believe—and it was reformed in light of the Second Vatican Council.
The Mass itself is divided into four “parts.” I make this observation because I suspect many Catholics may not see that. They may think of the Mass as a set body of prayers that just follow in succession, without seeing how the main ligaments of that liturgy cohere.
The four “parts” of the Mass are: (1) the Introductory Rites; (2) the Liturgy of the Word; (3) the Liturgy of the Eucharist; and (4) the Concluding Rites.
The Introductory Rites run from the entrance through the Collect (the Opening Prayer). We begin with the Sign of the Cross because everything we do as Christians begins and ends in the name of the Trinity and applies to us through Christ’s cross. So, our immediate focus is God.
The priest then says the theological equivalent of “hello.” The various options available to the priest, most of them lifted from Scripture (e.g., “the grace and peace of God our Father and of the Lord Jesus Christ…” comes from 1 Corinthians 1:3), are religious welcomes. “Welcome” in the Christian sense is not, “Hi, how ya doin’?” It is a wish for peace the world cannot give (John 14:27) and found expression in Jesus’ first post-Resurrection word to His gathered Apostles: “Peace be with you!” Peace—shalom—is not “have a nice day” but the profound peace that comes from being in right relation with God and one’s fellow human beings.
What then does the priest do? Immediately after welcoming us by wishing us peace the world cannot give, he invites us to take account of why we need that peace: “Let us call to mind our sins.” The Church’s liturgy (as opposed to some parishes stuck in a 1970s’ time warp) does not begin with a social hour or even “signs of peace” (since peace is something really given by God, not you) but an acknowledgment of what obstructs and impedes our peace: sin. To have peace, we need pardon. That is what the penitential rite teaches us.
Now, the penitential rite reminds us (a) we are sinners and (b) we need to be cleansed of our sins to participate in the Eucharist. The penitential rite is not a sacramental rite. (That’s why the “absolution”—“May Almighty God have mercy on us…”—is imprecatory, not declaratory, and does not include any sign of the cross). Those whose sins are serious (i.e., mortal sin) need recourse to another sacrament to participate fully (Vatican II’s criterion) in the Eucharist.
Lest we did not get the seriousness of our acknowledgment of sinfulness, the Church reinforces it with our prayer for mercy: Kyrie eleison—Christe eleison—Kyrie eleison.
In the Gloria, we not only praise God but we petition Him: “Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us!” We acknowledge our need to change because “You alone are the Holy One!”
Finally, no small number of the Opening Prayers include mention of our need for the Father’s healing and forgiveness.
That is how the “Introductory Rite” welcomes people.
Parallel elements can be found throughout the Mass, but the Introductory Rite is important because in the ancient liturgy, where catechumens participated only in the Liturgy of the Word, this was the part that baptized and unbaptized heard, both of whom were welcomed by being reminded of their need to change, μετανοεῖτε!
The same can be said of the Tridentine Mass, whose introductory rites are not substantially different as regards the above. And both the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms provide for sprinkling of the people, albeit at different points. The sprinkling alludes to the cleansing of the Baptismal sacrament of conversion. Indeed, the traditional hymn for sprinkling throughout most of the year was Asperges me, Domine! (Thou shalt sprinkle me, Lord!) while the Easter hymn—Vidi aquam (I saw water)—repeats the same cleansing motif.
If the liturgy, especially the Mass, is our normative teacher of the Church’s faith, then studying its welcome teaches us critical elements about what a “welcoming” Church is and isn’t.