Christmas Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

On Tuesday we will mark one of the greatest scandals in history: there was no room in the inn. Not only did people turn their back on a woman about to give birth, but, without knowing, refused hospitality to the long-awaited Messiah. The Son of God made Man came to His own people, as St. John would write, but they didn’t accept Him. They made no room for Him. This scandal culminated, we know, in the cross.

This article originally appeared in The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass, on December 21, 2012 and appears here with the kind permission of the author.

And this scandal continues in multiple ways. When Jesus knocks gently on the doors of our hearts wanting to bring us into a deeper union with Him, many try to pretend as if no one’s at the door. With regard to His presence in the Holy Eucharist, Jesus said to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque that most people respond with indifference, irreverence, coldness and scorn. Many also continue to refuse to be inconvenienced when they become aware of pregnant women in need.

But one of the places this scandal of inhospitality frequently occurs is, of all places, at Christmas Mass, in the way many in the Church respond to those the various “guests” coming home to their spiritual Bethlehem.

Rather than being welcomed with warmth, often visitors are made to feel as if they’re intruding on someone else’s turf. They sit in someone else’s pew. They often don’t know how to genuflect or bless themselves. Older kids who haven’t been to Church in a while may not know how to behave and they, rather than the Liturgy, will become the center of attention. Those who are recognizable often receive greetings filled with thinly-veiled judgmental sarcasm, like, “Long time no see.” Rather than sensing joy that others are thrilled to see them at Mass, they are made to feel guilty that they haven’t been seen, perhaps, since Easter.

The question of how practicing Catholics should respond to “CAPE” Catholics — those who come only on Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday and Easter — is one of the pressing pastoral problems of our age. Beyond the 30 million Americans who now self-identify as ex-Catholics, three-quarters of the 78 million who still call themselves Catholics come to Mass infrequently. Many of those 59 million Catholics will be coming to Church on Christmas Eve and Day and it’s a tremendous opportunity for us to reintroduce them to the real love that should flow from our Catholic faith.

Several years ago, Pope Benedict was asked his thoughts about those who come to Mass only on a few times a year. His response should influence the reaction of everyone in the Church: he said he was happy that they still have some faith. Although their faith may be weak, they still feel a bond to the Church and want to come to celebrate at least the most important mysteries. There’s still a flame of desire for God burning within them and their coming provides the Church an opportunity to fan that flame.

It’s true, some will say, that their voluntarily missing Sunday Mass most of the year is a serious sin and that therefore they need to be called out of love to convert from their eschatologically dangerous life. But the call to conversion, an essential part of the Church’s mission, is probably only going to succeed after people feel welcomed, cared for, and loved by God and His family.

There’s no greater witness to this approach than the Lord Jesus, Who was called a “Friend of sinners” and not only welcomed but went out in search of those on the moral periphery of Jewish life. He never ceased to call them to repentance and a new and better life with Him, but He first showed them that He didn’t consider them outcasts, but friends. This happened even on the first Christmas: shepherds had anything but a reputation for religious exactitude, but they’re the ones to whom the Good News of great joy was first brought.

As we think of the type of Christian hospitality that should mark our parishes, homes and hearts throughout the year, but particularly on Christmas, I think of the Benedictines, who have taught the entire Church how to be hospitable for 1,500 years.

St. Benedict wrote that when a guest arrives, the abbot and all the monks should stop what they’re doing and go to greet him. They should either bow their head to the guest or, if they can, lie prostrate on the ground before him. Then the guest should be led to the chapel to pray and, if he’s hungry, the superior should accompany him to get some food and eat with him, even breaking a fast to do so. The Abbot should wash the guest’s hands and then, together with the monks, wash his feet. Then he should accompany him to his guest room and make sure that he has everything he needs. And this should happen whenever a guest arrives, no matter how poor or unexpected.

That type of hospitality strikes us as absurdly extravagant, but if the Benedictines truly want to receive all guests the way they would receive Christ, then this “excessive” receptivity becomes logical. If they were welcoming Christ Himself, Who said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed Me,” would we not expect the abbot and everyone else to interrupt what they’re doing to go to the door to meet Him? Would we not expect them to lie prostrate before Him, pray with Him, show Him every kindness and break their fast to eat with Him?

The problem for many Christians is that, no matter how many times we’ve heard Jesus’ words about welcoming others as we would Him, we don’t act on them. If it were a question of welcoming Jesus Himself, all of us would want to welcome Him with all the love we’ve got, but we don’t love others in practice the way we love Him. Jesus says that at the end of time, many will ask, “Lord, when did we see You a stranger and refuse to welcome You?” implying that they would have given Him a welcome they refused to give others. The tragic response Jesus says they’ll receive is, “As often as you failed to do it to the least of My brothers and sisters, you failed to do it to Me.”

So as we prepare to welcome many at the Christmas Masses we don’t see every week, we need to prepare like Benedictines to treat every guest the way we would want to treat Jesus, Mary and Joseph. If we would excitedly welcome Mary and Joseph to our parish, then we should welcome every young couple, no matter their circumstances. If we would never allow the Blessed Virgin to have to climb over us to get to the inside of the pew so that we can keep our real estate on the aisle, we should just slide down for everyone. If we would not be upset in the least if the Baby Jesus were crying in the pew behind us, we should have that same attitude toward crying children made in His image and likeness.

If we make Christmas visitors to our Church feel the love with which Christ embraced outcasts and Benedictines welcome strangers, we would almost certainly see them more often. Hospitality is a crucial part of the “New Evangelization.” Let’s do all we can — as individuals and parish communities — contagiously to welcome every family the way the inn-keepers of Bethlehem should have welcomed the Holy Family that first Christmas.

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