by Father Mark Goldasich
“Thank you so much for the HOSPITAL – ity!”
Oh, I thought I was so clever writing this in the guest book at a rectory in Nyeri, Kenya, where I stayed a couple of days. It was 1980 and I’d just been ordained a deacon and was spending the winter — Nyeri is below the equator, so the seasons are reversed from ours — doing pastoral work in East Africa with another American deacon.
Before arriving in Kenya, we stopped off to tour Cairo and stayed at a Jesuit residence there. After being assured by an elderly Jesuit that the water in the place was safe to drink, we did . . . only to experience its quasi-lethal effects on our insides days later in Kenya. I was the first to be shipped off to the hospital run by the Consolata order, followed a day later by my fellow deacon. We were released a few days later, none the worse for wear, to do our diaconal ministry (with no subsequent hospital trips).
Did you know that the word “hospitality” actually does stem from “hospital,” whose Latin root means “of a guest”? In fact, the original meaning of a hospital was “a place of shelter and rest for travelers.”
Hospitality has been on my mind since my parish hosted a stewardship conference this past weekend focused on the critical importance of hospitality. Keynote speaker Sheri Wohlfert came to us from Westphalia — Michigan, that is. Her presentations were informative, lively, inspirational, humorous and challenging. One of her main points was: When we are hospitable in our parishes, we’re being evangelizers. If people feel a coldness or indifference when entering our churches, you can bet that they won’t return.
The good news is you don’t need any special degree or training to be hospitable, as seen in the following story:
A pastor received a letter marked, “Please give to Harry the Usher.” This is what it said:
“Dear Harry: I’m sorry that I don’t know your last name, but then, you don’t know mine. I’m Gert, Gert at the 10 o’clock Mass every Sunday. I’m writing to ask a favor. I don’t know the priests too well, but somehow I feel close to you. I don’t know how you got to know my first name, but every Sunday morning you smile and greet me by name, and we exchange a few words. . . . I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to remember an old woman, for the smiles, for your consideration, for your thoughtfulness.
“Now for the favor: I am dying, Harry. My husband has been dead for 16 years and the kids are scattered. It is very important to me that when they bring me to church for the last time, you will be there to say, ‘Hello, Gert. Good to see you.’ If you are there, Harry, I will feel assured that your warm hospitality will be duplicated in my new home in heaven. With love and gratitude, Gert.” (Found in William J. Bausch’s “A World of Stories for Preachers and Teachers.”)
There’s much truth in that letter. It’s funny that parishioners will often know so much information about a person at church — where they typically sit, the kind of car they drive, the place they park in the lot, the number of kids they have, etc. — everything except the most important thing: the person’s name. They’ve just never had the courage or taken the time or cared to ask. We’ve got to change that.
Since genuine hospitality starts with prayer, try out this one from beliefnet.com, written by columnists Mark and Jill Herringshaw. (I’ve substituted “parish” where “house” and “home” appear in the original.)
“Father, you have given us a parish that has become our refuge. . . . Today, we are giving you our parish. If there is a weary soul who needs a respite, may they find it cozy here. . . . If there is a soul who is living in chaos, may they find in our parish a place of solace.
“Give us patience, Lord, when our parish gets messy. After all, what did you give it to us for in the first place? As a museum of collectibles or fine things? As a sterile environment that makes no one feel at ease? No. A parish is to be used, lived in, loved in, offered and given up for others.
“Jesus, you are most hospitable. You receive everyone who comes to you in need. Make us more like you. In Jesus’ name. +Amen.”
No wonder Pope Francis once referred to the church as a “field hospital.” May hospitality be our first step to turning our congregations — random people gathered together — into real-life communities of love and welcome.