By Jack Bentz, S.J. Reprinted with permission from America magazine
My work took me away from home a lot last fall, and so I was at a different Catholic parish every weekend. All the same Catholic Mass—and, depressingly, the same experience of being the unwelcomed stranger in a strangely familiar land.
Many of the parishes had a greeter smiling at the front door with a bulletin in hand. There was often an invitation from the pulpit for all visitors to stand and be welcomed. At one parish, I even received a shiny little gift bag with a ballpoint pen and a coffee cup, both bearing the name of the parish.
That was nice. I was being officially welcomed.
But it was not working. Why? I think it is because I had to climb over people to get into a pew. Seriously. This happened time and again and in churches that were empty except for the ends of the pews firmly held against all newcomers.
I was raised Catholic. I know the strategy. The first-class seats are at the end of the pew. To create a warm and inviting parish, it is apparently much easier to put a welcome blurb in the bulletin or even to station greeters at the front of the church than for parishioners to sit in the middle of an empty pew.
The more parishes I attended, the more people I had to crawl over, the more time I had to think: What scares us about sitting in the center? The wooden pew is just as hard, the view is much the same and we won’t suddenly hear an improvement in the music by sitting on the aisle. Perhaps it is because we know we should be at Mass but are unwilling to really commit. We want to be close to an exit so we can make a quick getaway. So we sit with one foot in the pew and the other in the parking lot.
Do we forget that we are at Mass because it is here the community gathers? It is here that we become the people of God, drawn to each other by the work of the Spirit. And yet we try to sit where we can have as little contact with other people as possible—choosing our seats at Mass as we would on a cramped trans-Atlantic flight with unpleasant strangers.
We do this without thinking about it, on a level that remains hidden to us but is obvious to newcomers. We bemoan our empty churches and then act as though no one is expected to join us in our empty pew. But here is the deal: The end spots on a pew are for those who arrive after us.
Or do we think we are the last ones who will sit in these pews at all? That we are the final generation of faithful churchgoing Catholics? Thus we don’t need to worry about moving toward the middle because the pew will be largely empty anyway.
Every weekend, in every Catholic Church in the United States, new people arrive hungry for a community to call home. Is this parish for them? Is this pew for them? They come from other denominations, from other faiths and from other parishes. If they cannot find a place to sit, they will not be back. And we will never have a chance to speak the saving Word to them, because, in spite of the official welcome, they understood this was not going to be their church. It was already taken by the guardians at the end of the pew.
This is hard on the newcomers, but it is equally damaging to the oldtimers, the invested, the parishioners. We can go to Mass weekend after weekend, and every weekend we get just a little bit less hopeful. We begin to see the empty pews as abandoned real estate rather than fresh new lots, ready for families to move into our neighborhood.
Now, this might not apply to families with kids. But if we singles and couples chose to scoot over and occupy the middle we would not only create space for the newcomers but we could get into the habit of hope again in our church. We could hold a space open for all our friends and family who wander in lost and alone on a Sunday morning. And we would begin to rub elbows with the Sunday regulars from the other end of the pew as well.
Then, imagine if we all began to move toward the middle in the rest of our lives—in our choice of media, in our ideological camps. Can you imagine moving to the middle? Or is any movement toward the center seen as a betrayal? Are we selfish enough to continue the move apart when what we need desperately is to come together?
Can you imagine arriving at Mass and choosing to sit in the exact middle of a pew? If you sit there, you boldly state that you are expecting more people to join you. There is room on your right; there is room on your left. You sit in the middle because you are welcoming. You are ready to make that first offer to strangers, the offer of space, of community. You help them begin a first step toward a life with Christ where you are St. Paul, John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary rolled into one: an on-fire, evangelizing Catholic.