Don't be stingy with the sacraments
Instead of greeting people with the third degree, the church should welcome them with open arms.
Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.
One day a woman came to our church office just wanting me to bless her 3-year-old son. Boy, did he put up a fight. The only offices he knew were medical offices, and he thought I was going to give him a shot. Unfortunately, that little boy is not the only Catholic intimidated to visit a church office.
I strongly believe that we must show more flexibility in dealing with people who are coming to the church, especially when they’re coming back after a long absence or for the first time, and when they have a real desire for the sacraments. We who work in the church need to do much more to welcome people in a spirit of hospitality and need to worry much less about who is “worthy” to receive the sacraments.
Would Jesus today stick to strict office hours? Would he refuse to baptize babies if their parents couldn’t go to the required classes? Would he need to see a baptismal certificate before he would break bread with them?
Pope Francis has been asking us to spend more time among the people and less time putting up obstacles for them. Six months before his election as pope, then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio used unusually blunt language when he criticized priests who refuse to baptize children born to single mothers. He called priests who deny the sacraments to people because of their life circumstances the “hypocrites of today” and “followers of the Pharisees,” and he chastized them for “driving people away from salvation.”
Unfortunately, I have heard far too many stories of people who were driven away from salvation because of how they were treated by a priest, a sister, a lay catechist, an usher, or a parish secretary. As the body of Christ, we must do better than this.
My brother went to a Catholic grammar school, and his primary memory of those days is of the harsh discipline of the religious sisters who taught him there. Another brother was not allowed to cross the stage at his high school graduation because my father was in arrears with some of the tuition payments. Neither one frequents the church much anymore, except for the occasional wedding or funeral.
As the story of the little boy’s fear of the church office shows, we have to be sensitive to people’s previous experiences. The simple act of walking into a church office may be an act of bravery for some. When people come to the church office, we have no idea what their day has been like, what they have had to do to get to the church, or what their past experience with the church
The person who receives them—be it a receptionist or a secretary—must be aware not only of the rules of the church but also how to give each person a welcoming smile and listening ear. It has been my experience that the first conversation sets the tone for the pastoral encounter. A gruff person can give the impression that you are a bother and that their job is to protect the priest from you. Unfortunately, sometimes that actually is the role to which he or she has been assigned.
Many people come to the church office to arrange for one of the sacraments, most often baptism or marriage. While working in a Guatemala mission, a newly ordained priest from the United States insisted that couples and godparents attend five prebaptismal sessions. Some of these people, however, lived in a village that was a two-day walk away. A more experienced brother in the community, who had more insight into the way these people lived, talked to the young priest about doing the catechesis in some other way.
Sometimes the demands of a particular parish are clearly out of line. I know a priest who would not baptize a baby if the parents were not married in the church. Sure, that would be nice, but that is not a requirement for baptism.
So much depends on how people are approached. The baptism of a child, especially the first child for a couple who has not been close to the church, could be the beginning of a religious life within that family. Rather than focusing on requirements, why not focus on invitations to further growth in the faith?
If couples are confronted right away with regulations, they will perceive the church as legalistic and overly concerned about compliance with rules. I remember one couple who was living together and wanted to baptize their little boy. I told them that I would work with them to make it possible for them to receive communion with their newborn when he makes his first communion. Because I was willing to listen to them and work with them, they agreed to go on an Engaged Encounter weekend.
I have had couples come to me who wanted to get married but who were rejected by other parishes. In some cases they were rejected for such spurious reasons as not being registered in that particular parish, or because they needed some special dispensation or even an annulment in order to proceed.
One couple told me that their priest “didn’t do annulments as a matter of principle.” I don’t know how many Catholics have left the church and gone to other churches because of our laws about divorced and remarried Catholics. We need to find ways to be much more pastoral and understanding of people’s lives and the difficult decisions that they must make at times.
We should not make a difficult situation worse by heaping upon couples a lengthy annulment process. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the importance of order and adhering to the norms of our church. But I also think that local pastors should be given more leeway to make decisions based on the facts and circumstances of the people in front of them.
A priest has the authority to witness the sacrament of marriage. Should he not also have the authority to declare it null and void? Wouldn’t more people be willing to come forward and talk about their marriage relationship with a local pastor or a trained married deacon rather than a diocesan tribunal?
Pope Francis has called the church to be “a facilitator of faith and not an inspector of faith.” We should take a close look at all our rules and ask if they serve to “facilitate” faith or if they are making us inspectors of it.
I take the pope’s call to mean that we should help people grow in their faith from whatever starting point they happen to be at. No one is born fully formed in the faith; there is need for progress and development for all of us.
I remember how, as a young priest and after completing my doctoral studies, I was sent to a downtown parish. I was still unpacking my bags when I was called down to the church office. A young couple had come in with a little girl, who was carrying a young chicken.
Apparently that day the parish had celebrated the annual blessing of the animals, but this family had arrived long after the ceremony. The little girl was very sad that she could not get a blessing for her pet. So what could I do? I blessed the chicken—and I blessed the entire family. I thought, if only my professors could see me now, after all those years of graduate studies, blessing a chicken!
Since then I have blessed hundreds of cars, houses, businesses, and animals of all kinds. I have realized that part of our prophetic ministry
is to bless those whom society marginalizes or holds to be of little worth. Now when I greet people, one of my first steps is to ask myself what I can do to bless them, their work, their family, and their dreams.
Jesus said to give freely what has been given freely to us. Can’t we cut back on the rules and behavior that exclude people and do what we can to bless and include people, especially those who suffer from exclusion in our society?
In my years as a priest, I have learned that the church teaches best by being and doing for others. Only then does the Word make sense. And only then will the rules of the church help to facilitate the faith of the people.
And the survey says...
1. I or someone in my family has been excluded by a priest from a sacrament or celebration at church.
50% - Agree
45% - Disagree
5% - Other
2. The primary function of a priest should be:
43% - Caring for people.
33% - Pastorally administering the sacraments by the church’s guidelines.
14% - Making people feel welcome.
1% - Administering the sacraments by the prescribed rules of the church (with no exceptions).
9% - Other
3. Sometimes people have such outlandish expectations about their right to sacraments that even well-meaning priests can’t oblige them.
65% - Agree
20% - Disagree
15% - Other
Representative of “other”:
“There is rarely black and white. A listening ear and a caring heart can go a long way.”
4. Being more welcoming to people and accommodating their situations is one of the best ways for the church to evangelize.
92% - Agree
3% - Disagree
5% - Other
5. If I approached a parish looking to receive a sacrament for myself or my children and was turned away because of some written rule, I would:
57% - Try to find another parish that would be more understanding and accommodating.
25% - Do my best to meet the requirement and try again in the future.
6% - Leave the Catholic Church and not come back.
0% - Get into a shouting match with the person who turned me away and then file a complaint with the diocese.
12% - Other
Representative of “other”:
“Seek to find the reason behind the rule and then come to my own discernment.”
6. Adhering closely to the rules might make the church smaller, but it will also make it more pure.
7% - Agree
77% - Disagree
16% - Other
Representative of “other”:
“The church isn’t supposed to be pure, but a place that welcomes the impure to help all to become as much like Jesus as possible.”
7. More harm is done by being overly conscious of rules than would be done by a more relaxed approach.
86% - Agree
7% - Disagree
7% - Other
The worst example I've ever heard of a parish priest or staffer being rule-obsessed is:
A divorced person completing RCIA and waiting three, count 'em, three years because of bureaucratic issues relating to the "paperwork" that must be completed before this person could receive the Eucharist.
Refusing first communion to a little boy who moved to the area just a couple of weeks before the class celebration due to his father's sudden death, simply because he had been prepared in another parish.
My son-in-law isn’t Catholic and the priest tried to talk them out of a Mass even on the morning of the wedding because he didn't want to offend him during communion. I said bless his head and nobody will know the difference and the priest finally gave in!
A neighboring parish where they won't baptize babies whose parents aren't married. Not much evangelizing going on there.
When a colleague who was a long-time Director of Parish Faith Formation (Religious Education) offered to help with individual blessing of a large parish on Ash Wednesday and was told that only priests were allowed to bless people.
A priest I know will not witness the marriages of people past child-bearing age because they will not be able to procreate!
When my mother could not receive any sacraments because of birth control use. She was not even permitted communion at my father's funeral. It destroyed her for many years. She finally—in her 70s—began attending an Episcopalian church. This is very sad.
Telling the assembly during his homily, "This is the way the church says it will be. If you don't approve then leave. It's OK."
Asking $1,000 for a baptism because the family was not yet registered from the parish that was consolidated into the new one.
Denying absolution in confession after engaging the penitent in a conversation on birth control and hearing an opinion, not a practice. Person stopped going to confession for 14 years. Grace waste!
I am hoping that the fresh message of our dear Pope Francis would stir the hearts of our bishop and the pastor in my parish, and all the priest who are call to care for the poor just as Jesus did.
My comment is that if you do not like the guidelines of the church go find another.
Rules are there for a reason, but we need to understand the spirit of the law, not just the letter.
I am barely on speaking terms with the institutional Catholic Church—but the Catholic faith, and the people who make up our parish and church—I am all good there.
Another church in our neighborhood has a sign that says, "All are welcome". I wish we could put a sing like that up (and mean it). With the Gloria response we sing, we acknowledge efforts outside this church—calling them people of good faith. I'm with the pope when he says, "Who am I to judge?"
Try to not put your church staff on a pedestal. They are human and make mistakes like everyone else.
I would like to "clone" the author of this article and put one of him in every Catholic parish, school, and office. It was so nice to see that the pope is not the only one who thinks this way.
Our church is too often seen by other Christians and other faiths as a "buy your way to heaven" entity partly due to the indulgences from so many years ago, but also because we are seen as having to earn our sacraments. It would be really good to change this image, but it will take a lot of work by being welcoming to more people and less rigid about rules. Let's be seen as believers in God's grace that is so far beyond us we cannot earn it by any means but only treasure it more as time goes on.
This article appeared in the January 2014  issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 1, pages 26-29).
Results are based on survey responses from 489 USCatholic.org visitors.