Sunday, 16 July 2017

How to have a welcoming parish

I had an excellent discussion with a brother priest this morning (Sunday, July 16) over breakfast concerning what it means to have a welcoming parish. My experience of doing 5 years of in-depth parish pastoral visits revealed to me that most regular parishioners think their parish is a welcoming parish. My experience also revealed that many of those people, when asked why they think theirs is a welcoming parish, have no idea how to respond. It comes down to a feeling, more than facts. In fact, some gentle probing on my part has left me convinced that most people think their parish is welcoming *as a whole* mainly because they have friends whom they see there on a regular basis. I am certainly not against having friends at church, but to be honest I am not sure this is a sufficient criterion for arriving at this broad conclusion. Now I admit, my study was not scientific in the strict sense, but it was intentional, and included more broad-based observations covering many parishes.

So what did those years of visits teach me? Can "welcome" be measured as a feature of parish life? While I have not developed this (yet) into some sort of "welcome score", from what I can see there are five criteria to measure how welcoming a parish might be. In my experience, a welcoming parish is:

  1. Safe
  2. Clean
  3. Open
  4. Friendly
  5. Helpful

These are layered criteria, i.e. even if a parish is very friendly, I would not call it welcoming if it isn't safe. Look at it this way: would you let your kids go to the neighbours if, despite those people being very friendly and helpful, their home was neither clean nor safe? If not, even if those people had the honest intention to have their home be a welcoming environment, it just isn't.

So what do these labels mean? I am still working on fleshing them out, but here are a few thoughts.


Is the physical environment of the parish safe? Is the structure safe, or is their a danger of falling bricks? Are the steps and railings secure? Could someone easily trip on something? Is there exposed asbestos? Is there mould? Are there potholes in the parking lot that people could step in and injure themselves? Are the walking areas salted in winter to avoid people slipping? Are emergency exits properly marked?

What about the human environment? Is the outside area properly lit at night so nothing unsavory can happen in dark and shadowy parts? Is the inside environment safe, e.g. no access to a machinery room for curious kids? Are there first aid kits, fire extinguishers, and even a small defibrillator available? Are staff, including volunteers, trained in a safe environment policy, including what to do in case of emergency? Is there a code of conduct, outlining clear boundaries, including how to deal with unacceptable interpersonal situations like harassment? Is there a clear abuse prevention policy? Is the environment free of common allergens, even including things like availability of low-gluten alternatives for communion, and the use of hypoallergenic incense (which does exist!)

There are ways to do an audit of envirnmental safety. The fire department here in Montreal will inspect buildings. There are people trained as specialists in workplace safety who can help, and might be able to advise for specific related to a parish environment. The parish insurance company can also advise in this regard, as they have a key interest in risk management.


To better understand this term, think of what we typically do when guests are coming over. We clean up, right? There is a usual amount of clutter that accumulates in our lives that we hardly notice, except when someone new is visiting. Suddenly, we notice, and we do something about it. Well, parishes are often like a second home for people. That's generally a good thing, but it can also mean we don't notice when things are less presentable, and we may not realise how off-putting those things can be for newcomers.

What is the opposite of clean, in this context? At its worst, it means filthy. I've seen some filthy parishes, or at least parishes with filthy areas. That's awful, especially for a house of God. While less extreme, the opposite of clean can mean untidy, messy, cluttered, unkempt, and so on. This starts with the outside environment. I'm not saying every parish needs to win an award for landscaping, but is the lawn at least mowed? If people walk their dogs around the parish, is the animal waste picked up? The inside environment is important too. Are the pews tidied up between masses, picking up the kid's crackers and cheerios, the books put back in place, Kleenex picked up, and so on? Are the bathrooms regularly checked for cleanliness (and stocked with soap, toilet paper, etc.)? Are the kitchens clean? Are the walls clear of cobwebs, the window sills clear of dust and grime, and so on?

In my experience, the best people to get advice from on environmental cleanliness are successful restaurant operators, especially family restaurants. No one wants to eat in a dirty restaurant. At the same time, those people have to deal with all kinds of members of the public, including kids (who are the messiest of us all, dontcha know). They've got lots of experience dealing with all kinds of messes. Another category of people I'd approach for advice are daycare operators. Again, what reasonable parent would leave their kids in a pigsty? So ask your parents what are the daycares with the best reputation for cleanliness, and get their advice.

As a final point, I think it is important to differentiate between cleanliness and opulence. Have you ever gone to someone's house where the environment was clearly designed to not just welcome, but impress? This can be very intimidating, especially for those from humble backgrounds. I think we can all agree we want our churches to be beautiful, but the standard in our tradition is "noble tradition", not opulence.


The first element of openness is physical. Starting with the church building, is it usually locked except for services, or can people get in to pray? I know that this can involve security issues, but there are places that manage to overcome those problems. Even if the building is just kept open a bit before and after the usual mass times, it can mean a lot to people needing that sacred space.

Openness also applies to the parish office. What are the hours when it is open to the public? Are those hours convenient for the people, or are they designed more for the staff?

Openness can also mean availability of the facilities. Outside of its own pastoral needs, does the parish rent space for events, or allow community groups (like AA) to use it?

Another aspect of physical openness is accessibility. Can a person with reduced mobility get in? Are there facilities (e.g. bathroom, lift) that they can use?

Openness is also for families, not just individuals. Are their facilities that make the parish family friendly? Is there a crying room, or daycare facilities (such as during mass)? Is there a diaper changing table in the bathroom?

While these elements are about facilities, we need to remember that none of these points actually help people feel comfortable about entering them. Parishes in very public places can also put out a sign letting people know that they can go in, or even just having the doors wide open as an invitation. A good parish website can also help, as people will often go there to get details like mass times. A virtual tour of the parish (which can also be put in pamphlet form for those who actually come to visit) can help people feel like the physical environment is already familiar.

Of course, a parish is about a lot more than facilities. How open are we as a community? A lot of people in challenging situations regularly face the fear of rejection, but Christ has broken down the barriers that isolate us. How welcoming are we to the intellectually handicapped, to the mentally ill, to visible minorities, to people of various cultures, to immigrants, to the divorced, to single parents, and so on? Coming back to Jesus, let's also not forget that he came to seek and save the lost. The greatest marginalization is sin, and Jesus loves sinners. How is confession being made available and promoted as the sacrament of healing that it is?


As I mentioned in my introduction, when most people think their parish is welcoming what they really mean is they believe it is friendly -- the only difficulty being that they often only see the reactions of their friends. A truly welcoming parish has to widen the circle.

The key to understanding friendliness is that it is all about human contact. In includes actual walk-ins to the parish office, but extends beyond that to (believe it or not) things like the parish answering machine. How easy is it to get to a human being via the phone menu so many places have? If a message is left, how quickly does someone get a response? We should not underestimate how desperate a family can be in the case of the death of a loved one, for example. Similar questions can be asked regarding contact via Internet, such as via email or a form on the parish website. Of course, the person who does respond to an inquiry has a core responsibility to be a friendly face and voice. Sadly, stories of grumpy parish staff are legion.

Of course, the most important moment of that human contact is on the weekend. That contact starts as people try and get a space in the parking lot: if space is at a premium, is there an attendant to help keep things in order? When people walk through the parish doors, is there someone to greet them? With regards to that greeting, how well trained are people to answer questions and make those arriving feel like part of the family?

Of course, all parish staff, including volunteers, share in this responsibility. While not all need to have answers, all should be approachable and be trained to handle questions. Staff should be easily identified as such, such as via name tags, t-shirts, etc.

In the end, all parishioners share in creating a friendly atmosphere. Apart from exhorting people to smile more, parish leaders can help facilitate this environment. Parish directories and photo albums help people connect names to faces. Social events, if they include personal touches like icebreakers or birthday and marriage anniversary announcements, help build a sense of community. Even an event as simple as a parish bazaar can help make those connections.

It isn't easy to measure just how friendly a parish might be, but in the end we know it when the opposite is the case. Mean, cold, rude, judgmental, cliquey... these are not the attributes of the kind of human contact a parish should offer. Happily, there are resources to help. As banal as it sounds, stores like Walmart have special training for staff to make sure the client experience avoids these negative elements. Beyond the secular world, many Evangelical churches are known for their talent in this area. Here in Montreal we invited a panel of evangelical pastors to speak at a conference on parish vitality, just because we wanted to learn from the best.


The ultimate level of welcome is the point of transition to pastoral care. Parishes that are safe and clean at least don't drive people away. A parish that is open at least makes it easier for people to come in. Once a parish is truly friendly, then trust starts to really grow. We should not be surprised, then, if the context of that trust means that people reveal their needs and seek help.  It can be as simple as someone needing jumper cables to get their car started. Certainly it can include offering a listening ear, and offering referrals to services in the community, as required. Beyond this, any vulnerability can be the inspiration of the servant discipleship that is meant to characterize all parishes. Obviously that is a much larger topic, but I think it shows how our mission to "seek and save the lost" gets a lot easier if they are comfortable coming to seek us!

What do we say after hello?

There is a lot of focus in the pastoral literature nowadays on the importance of offering a warm welcome in our parishes. Of course, we need more than that. The bread and butter of parish life is worship and catechism. Still, those things can be offered only for those who are already part of the parish in-group. If we want parishes that are really going to be engines of evangelization, reaching out to the spiritual peripheries, then providing a top-class welcome is mission critical. Even better, it can remove the barriers to parishioners getting involved. After all, not everyone can pass on doctrine, but everyone can invite a friend to join a welcoming worshipping community. All we can do to make that easier for people allows the whole parish to more and more become an embassy for the Kingdom of God.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

My little black book

I had a chance to go for a lovely lunch with a local businessman, where in addition to eating we prayed and shared our spiritual journeys. During the lunch I shared on a little technique I've found very helpful to stay focused.

The picture you see above is of a little Moleskine notebook. It fits perfectly in a shirt pocket. When I go to the chapel, or just try and find a quiet spot for prayer, I keep it handy. My purpose is not to write, it's to speak to God -- and to listen. But there are two stresses that come up during prayer that this book helps with.

First of all, I find my head is so filled with work and projects that they intrude when what I need is to be in the zone with God. As soon as a distraction hits, I just write it down, parking it on paper. It really works -- I can give myself permission to not think of whatever might be preoccupying me, and just talk to the Lord.

Once those are settled, I find that my times of quiet prayer are phenomenal moments of creativity and focus, and even inspiration (and yes, I include the divine word there too). The problem is, once an idea hits, it too can become a distraction -- because I don't want to forget it! So the notebook helps there too.

When I was younger I journalled regularly. In fact, I can honestly say it was my contact with God through journalling that brought me to the seminary -- even prepared me for a direct encounter with Christ. But that is a topic for another day.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Preaching on providence

I had the joy of celebrating the opening mass for the general chapter of the Sisters of Providence. What an honour to have been invited! I was just so amazed and delighted to be among these impressive women who have offered so much to God and their neighbour.

My homily was, as you can imagine, on the theme of providence. This is actually a fairly major theme for me in my own spiritual life. As a kid I used to ask myself, "Why am I who I am?" In other words, how was it that I was born into the family I was, in the country and society I was? Why was I born a boy and not a girl, why was my skin/hair/eye colour what it was, why did I have the ancestry I did, etc.?

Of course, it would be easy to say that these sorts of attributes can't be answered with a "why". They simply are what they are. But deep down, I always felt that these things were not just random accidents, or simply the result of some past historical process. And if they weren't, then although I couldn't name it at the time, I was already open in my heart to the idea providence.

I even find the word "providence" fascinating. The root is "pro-videre", i.e. to "see forward". It can mean things like to foresee, to plan for the future, and so on, but basically it means being intentional about knowing the future, and it implies adjusting to meet that future. A good example is a person driving a car: the driver has to "foresee" what is coming, both what he can see, and what he can't but which, through experience, might show up. And of course, the driver needs to steer, brake, accelerate etc. as a function of all that.

Of course, the most important element of driving is knowing where you are going. A driver doesn't just drive, he navigates. "Providence" therefore is not just about reacting well to your environment, it is about having a plan so you can get to your destination.

This is why I think this concept is so important with regards to God. People often experience disappointment with regards to God's providence, thinking that God has not "provided" for them adequately. I can understand this in many cases, especially for people who have been true victims of abuse or neglect and are in the process of reclaiming their strength. But not everyone is in that situation: when a sense of entitlement or a consumerist mentality infects our soul, we lose not just our trust in God's providence, we also lose sight of God's plan.

These are real spiritual diseases. A consumer mentality, when it affects/infests our spiritual life, gradually causes us to objectify others as "suppliers" for our needs and desires. We can even treat God that way. And when we lose sight of God's plan, or worse, the very idea that there even is a plan in the first place, then we implicitly place ourselves as the primary author of that plan for us. It places us at the centre. This is a powerful illusion in this powerful civilization we live in. But when the unexpected does happen, it shocks us in ways we just can't handle.

I believe there are things we can do to keep a sense of God's providence in our life. First of all, we need to see all things as gift. Yes, we may "own" things, but we need to see them as blessings, and not as possessions. And this applies not just to our stuff, but to our relationships. Our job, our school, our family -- all is gift. Of course, when these things are sources of suffering, seeing them as gift is not as easy, but leaving that aside for a future blog post we can at least start with the mundane-to-positive things in our life.

We also need to develop a sense of God's plan. Simply put, human history is bigger than our history. God has been at work for literally billions of years before each of us got here, and history will roll on after we will have died. What is our sense of where we come from, and where we are going? Having a clear sense of these issues helps us to handle whatever might come.

The second point ties to the first. Gifts must be honoured, not exploited. And when we see all things as gift, we enter the plan of love of the giver, who sought to bless us with the gift. In other words, the first attitude prepares and reinforces the second.

It's curious, but I've noticed a lot people reacting very negatively to the idea of providence. It's like they think providence is some naive, fairy tale notion, and that it is important to live in the real world instead. Is it a defence mechanism? Some fear of being disappointed, maybe even by God? It might even be anger, or guilt at feeling angry. It can be really complicated -- but even those feelings can be part of divine providence. After all, if they help a person face something they are running from, or identify a deep-seated need for peace, then God's providence is at work.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

Thesis writing update

It's been a while since I wrote in the blog, mainly because I've engaged in another writing project... my canon law thesis! It is the final step in my licentiate through the Université de Strasbourg. The final text has to be between 60 and 80 pages long -- not too bad, but still a fairly big project. My goal is to do 2 pages per day in the month of July of the first draft, and then polish it up. The final draft has to be in France by mid-August, so that I can defend it in September. Otherwise, I have to enroll in an additional year. Not a big deal, but honestly I just want to get this done.

So far (July 9) I am up to 24 pages. That is a bit ahead of schedule, but honestly the process is extremely time consuming. I wish I could just sit down and blurt it all out, but the writing process is slow. Please keep me in your prayers!

Monday, 3 July 2017

Family day in Ottawa with new cousins

My family on my mother's side is on the larger side, and unfortunately that means there has been some loss of contact between some of us. What a joy it was, then, to meet up two cousins, Genevieve and Shayne, children of my (late) uncle Winfred. I've only gotten a chance to get to know Genevieve in the past couple of years, but despite her living on the other side of North America social media lets us all keep in touch. As for Shayne, we first ever connected through Facebook, and today was my chance to meet him for the first time, believe it or not. 

It's funny, you know -- we could all just be strangers to each other, but the power of family just opens doors to conversation and sharing life. It was awesome to see them both, and I look forward to connecting again soon.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Happy Festa di San Marziale to all my Calabrese friends!

I had the opportunity today to celebrate mass at Saint Michael and Saint Anthony parish on the occasion of the feast of San Marziale Martire. He's the patron saint of Isca sullo Ionio in Calabria. This was the 50th anniversary of the feast in Montreal, and my chance to discover it. Several blocks of Saint Viateur were closed off for a street festival, and after the mass there was a traditional Italian procession with the image of the saint through the neighbourhood.

Unfortunately I had to leave shortly after the mass itself, but it was an honour to be there -- as well as a chance to practice my Italian, as pretty much all of the mass was in that language! They originally offered to let me preside in English, but I was happy to give it my best shot. I may have wound up inventing my own dialect along the way, but hopefully I didn't do too much of an injustice to the language of Dante. In my experience, though, the Italian people are very forgiving for linguistic errors, and just love it when you try. To my Italian, and especially my Calabrese friends -- alla prossima!