A family prays during Christmas Mass at San Jose Catholic Church in Austin, Texas. CNS photo/Bob Roller

Reaching the ‘C&E’ Catholics

How to create an environment of welcome during Christmas

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Parking on the street around St. Clare Parish was heavy. It was Christmas Eve, about 20 minutes before Mass began. As I walked up the street toward the post office, I passed in front of the church. A friend greeted me and said, “Mass doesn’t start for 20 minutes, and already there is standing room only.” The next morning, the same scenario was repeated, although to a lesser degree, as parishioners and nonparishioners alike came to church to celebrate Jesus’ birthday.

Who are the people who come into our churches at Christmas? Some are relatives from out of town, but most are unregistered parishioners, living within our parish boundaries who rarely attend church. Put simply, they are inactive parishioners who claim no parish allegiance or stopped attending church for one reason or another. To various degrees, something about their Catholic faith still exists in them and draws them at this time of year.

They come because they have an unarticulated yearning springing from deep within that recognizes Christmas as a key spiritual event or a cherished memory from childhood. Such memories remain even though clouded by priest scandals and the secularization of contemporary society. They run deep, and older people often relive them with their children. Nothing indicates this more than watching a grandparent standing in front of the crib with a grandchild, silently telling the small child about Jesus and why we celebrate Christmas.

What Has Changed?

When I was a boy, few Catholics skipped Sunday Mass. From the earliest years, we learned the meaning of the Mass and saw its value in our everyday lives. This began to change shortly after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Why did Catholics stop coming? Although this issue is complex, we can identify four key reasons.

First, a chief reason for the lack of church attendance today is the failure of many Catholics to appreciate the Mass as Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Before Vatican II, Catholics firmly believed that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was renewed in an unbloody manner at Mass. They believed the bread and wine became the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ. When they received holy Communion, they received the living Christ. This firm belief was a powerful incentive for Catholics to receive Jesus as often as they could.

When I was a teenager, about 75 students from our parish attended early morning weekday Mass, before walking 15 minutes to high school. Children and adults often went to Mass daily. Today, this has changed. Many Catholics do not believe in Jesus’ Real Presence and in the value of attending Mass.

Second, in my childhood, guilt was a strong motivating factor, moving us to do good and avoid evil. Sin was stressed and scrupulosity was common. Attending Mass helped us receive the grace to avoid sin.

We learned that it was a mortal sin to miss Mass without a serious reason on Sundays and holy days of obligation. This teaching and the stress on missing Mass a sin became embedded in our consciences. Today, this has largely disappeared from Catholic consciences.

Third, the secular world strongly influences our way of thinking and the materialistic impact of much of what we do weakens our faith commitment. In addition, the priority of sports and other Sunday activities often take precedence nowadays, and some Catholics think little of missing Mass. As this continues, week after week, it becomes habit-forming, a pattern of behavior.

Concurrent with the secularizing factors inundating our Catholic population, the practice of family prayer and spiritual practices in the home wanes. The family’s religious environment rests largely on parents. When they fail to pray, engage spiritually with their children and attend Sunday Mass, how can their children develop a strong Catholic identity? With little help to form their consciences, younger Catholics often develop beliefs and practices according to the dictates of our materialistic society.

Fourth, the clerical scandal and lack of Church leadership during this crisis have seriously affected the commitment of Catholics to the Church. Many Catholics have left the Church, their confidence shattered. Even those who stay often have difficulty trusting their clerical leaders. Also, many young Catholics question some Church moral teaching, yet admire the Church’s social justice teaching and want to engage in ways that help the needy.

In this context, how can pastors and other Church leaders make Christmas an opportunity to evangelize active and inactive Catholics?

Opportunity to Evangelize

Modern advertisers stress “entry points” into people’s lives. On these occasions, customers are more open to responding favorably to the products they sell. Marcia, a business executive, says that advertisers regard such key moments as particularly significant. She gave the following example. Her company sells baby products. Their business plan focuses on identifying the parents of newborn children and giving them sample products shortly after a child’s birth. This company recognizes a child’s birth as a key entry point for future sales. Recognizing this entry point enables the company to introduce parents to products they need, like diapers.

Christmas celebrations in parishes can be entry points for inactive Catholics to appreciate the Faith and for active Catholics to grow in their own faith. Seen in this way, how would our preparation for this feast change if we focused on Christmas as a key entry point into the faith life of inactive Catholics — a time when they are more open to responding favorably? It’s a special time of the year, when those who rarely come to church can experience the beauty of the Catholic Faith. Christmas reveals a God who loves us, came to earth for us and invites us to celebrate the mystery of God’s presence.

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Father Robert Hater’s “Common Sense Catechesis” (OSV, $16.95) utilizes lessons from the past and builds a road map for the future for those in catechetical ministry, ensuring at the same time that Christ remains at the center. He challenges the catechist to know the basic teachings to be taught and helps devise ways to present them clearly and effectively.

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Every entry point happens in a certain context. Giving diapers to the parents of a newborn child by a sales company happens when a child is born. How can the Christmas liturgy be an entry point for the evangelization of inactive Catholics and the opportunity to deepen the faith of active Catholics?

The answer to this question involves more than the presider’s words of welcome, Christmas carols before Mass, a crib, Christmas lights, and church decorations. It includes all of these, but begins on a deeper level with the “climate” of the parish.

The climate of a parish is “the way Catholic beliefs and practices in any cultural and historical time are received and filtered through a Catholic community,” I previously wrote in “Common Sense Catechesis” (OSV, $16.95). The climate of a Christmas liturgy is framed within the broader parish context and is reflected in people’s experience when entering a church — the welcome received, the liturgical music, the spirit of the congregation and the positive style of the presider.

This positive style includes the hope that the presider exemplifies through his words and actions. What he does and how he does it in the liturgy fosters communion within the congregation. Although evangelization centers on the Eucharist, it includes the entire church environment surrounding the celebration. This communal spirit of the entire congregation helps us see that Jesus’ incarnation, celebrated on Christmas, is central to our Christian faith, powerfully recalling that God loves us so much that he simply wants to be with us in Jesus.

The parish climate speaks, as it were, to everyone in the congregation on Christmas — to both active and inactive churchgoers.

Using myself as an illustration, I’ll long remember walking into St. Lawrence Church to celebrate Sunday Mass, shortly after Christmas this past year. Years ago, my grandparents worshipped there, and my mother was baptized and married there. My history with this parish makes it special for me, but I was never there during Christmas.

On the day of my visit, the church was dimly lit. Blue and white Christmas lights in the sanctuary contrasted beautifully with red and white poinsettias around the altar. Strong emotions raced through me, as I imagined my mother praying with her mom at the crib long ago. The parish climate, that morning, interacted with my family history, as strong positive associations and pleasant memories became entry points to deepen my ongoing evangelization in the Faith.

My history with this parish triggered deeper reflections on the mystery of Christ’s birth, long before Mass began, the choir sang and the priest gave his Christmas homily. I remembered how such positive associations and memories from my family history set the tone for my later understanding of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. I can only speculate on how similar reflections evangelized those whose faith was not strong — how it was an entry point, triggering new insights into faith’s value in the lives of inactive Catholics.

The attitude of parishioners, the words of the lector and priest, the music and the congregational response enhance the climate of every Christmas liturgy. The celebrant can take the lead by developing a positive climate. He does so by his joyful spirit, welcoming attitude and avoidance of any remarks that embarrass or turn off Catholics for not being regular churchgoers. Christmas is a special time that allows him to reflect through his words and actions the beauty, hope and joy that is Christmas and to invite attendees to return after Christmas to hear more about the mystery of our loving God.

What message do we, as pastors, priests and deacons, want to leave our parishioners this Christmas? Regardless of our answer, try to connect whatever is said in your homily with the deep longings of the human heart. May your enthusiasm and zeal bring love and simplicity alive at Christmas!

FATHER ROBERT J. HATER, Ph.D., a Cincinnati archdiocesan priest, is an internationally known author and lecturer. He is professor emeritus at the University of Dayton and resides at St. Clare Parish in Cincinnati.

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Tips for a Homily on Evangelization

Evangelization is relational. To be effective, whatever is said or done has to touch Catholics in a personal way and connect with them. This means that everything surrounding the Christmas liturgy, especially the homily, is inviting.

A priest’s homily reflects his style. What he says depends on the occasion, the parish’s climate, the Scripture and the congregation. The following questions may help a priest or deacon to recognize the special occasion Christmas provides to evangelize the congregation, especially inactive Catholics. Select several of them and make them part of your homily preparation this Christmas.

What can I say in my homily or what stories can I tell that will help the congregation better appreciate the true meaning of Christmas and the importance of faith in their everyday lives?

How does my Christmas message in the homily, regardless of the congregation’s involvement the rest of the year, inspire the attendees to recognize the Christmas story as a counter influence to the secularization of this feast?

How can I, as the homilist, help those in church remember that the Christmas celebration of Mass is a powerful invitation to learn more about the true meaning of the Mass?

What implications follow from the realization that my Christmas homily is to be relational and needs to connect with the experiences of the people?

What might be different if I kept in mind that many inactive churchgoers at the Christmas Mass have never made a faith commitment?

During Mass on Christmas, how can I give examples of ways that the entire congregation may get involved in the parish?

In mentioning that Mary, Joseph and Jesus were strangers in a strange land, how can I urge the Christmas congregation to become more active in the parish’s outreach to refugees, the poor and strangers?

What may remind me of the importance of reflecting a joyful spirit to the congregation this Christmas?

How can my homily indicate to the congregation that they are missionary disciples in their homes, neighborhoods and occupations?

With the Christmas story in mind, how can my homily stress the role of the home in the faith development of family members?

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