“I Was a Stranger … Welcoming the Stranger Through Hospitality,” was the theme for Pastoral Ministry Days, held at the end of March. During this time together we looked at how our parishes and we as individuals can reach out to others and invite all into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. Bishop Robert Gruss began by sharing a biblical understanding of hospitality and he encouraged us to see hospitality as a virtue.
In an article titled, “The Virtue of Hospitality: An Attitude of the Heart,” the author describes hospitality as the simple art of paying attention. “When we pay attention, we divest ourselves of self-preoccupation. To be hospitable we have to get out of ourselves and become interested in the other.” From personal experience, we all know this is easier said than done.
The night of Father Peter Kovarik’s funeral, I was in the cathedral hall vesting for the Mass when a couple approached me. They explained that they were good friends with Father Peter’s parents and were invited to sit with the family for the Mass. This couple asked where the family was gathering. I said, “Do you see the lady dressed in red? She is standing right in front of the kitchen. Go past her and past the kitchen, the first door on the right is the food pantry, the next door on the right is a large meeting room. That’s where you will find the family.” Instead of walking with the couple, I pointed and sent them off with a set of confusing directions to search on their own. After the funeral, as I prayed my nightly examination of consciousness at Casa Maria, I retraced the steps of my day and reflected upon where I encountered Christ with a grateful heart and where I could have done better. On this night, when I remembered my meeting the couple in the cathedral hall, I felt the jolt of the Holy Spirit probing my heart, “Now Father Mark was that generous hospitality — was that the best you could do?” It called me to ask for Our Lord’s mercy for this negligence.
This experience was a needed wake-up call for me. It reminded me that hospitality must be deliberate if I am to truly welcome the stranger in my midst. The heart of one striving to live this generous hospitality sees each person as Christ, each encounter as an opportunity to care for, serve, and love him. The challenge arises, however, as we battle with our selfishness and self-centered focus on our problems and our difficulties. This examination at the end of the day focuses our sight of those in our midst and seeing those in need.
Hospitality invites us to create space, to make room in our hearts to welcome another, to invite another, or simply to be with another, even when it is as simple as saying hello, sharing a hymnal, or inviting a visitor to bring up the gifts at Mass. All of these very simple gestures become far-reaching signs of welcome.
Hospitality happens in the here and now. It demands a directed attentiveness and an immediate response. As I reflected back on the experience at Father Peter’s funeral, I realized I would never get that opportunity again. I failed to act in the now moment of time that God had offered.
We must see hospitality as a holy event. Jean Vanier is the founder of the L’Arche Community in France — a community of peoples with and without disabilities who share their lives in communities of faith and friendship. Vanier writes, “Welcome is one of the signs that says a community is alive. To invite others to live with us is a sign that we aren’t afraid, that we have a treasure of truth and of peace to share … The community which refuses to welcome — whether through fear, weariness, insecurity, a desire to cling to comfort, or just because it’s fed up with visitors — is dying spiritually.” Vanier’s words certainly challenge us!
Is our parish community alive or dying? How do we welcome one another as the body of Christ? Does our parish offer a generous hospitality to those whose faith has become lukewarm? Do we welcome and acknowledge the visitor or stranger in our midst? Is hospitality a holy virtue in our parish?