Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish is a welcoming community, sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ through faith, prayer and the sacraments.
What first comes to mind is the word welcoming. It’s invitational, implying inclusiveness. Think of Jesus’ arms extended on the cross in a welcoming gesture that embraces all. That’s who we are, a parish family who embraces all in a welcoming gesture that draws in people regardless of their status, culture, background, language, etc. As it says in Scripture, “you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
But to what are we welcoming them? Are we, Assumption Parish, a stand-alone group similar to an organization, club, fraternity or sorority? Are we welcoming them simply because we need their company or their presence supports the reasons we ourselves come? Are we welcoming them simply so they can have a child baptized or send their children to religious education? It seems that it’s important we’re clear on this “welcoming” aspect of our parish’s Mission Statement. Surely it is more than being part of an organization which gathers weekly, does good community and church outreach activities, and prays in a particular (Catholic) fashion.
The “welcoming” part of our Mission Statement necessarily involves a welcome into the experience of self-identity as members of the Body of Christ – which is far bigger than any particular parish. We welcome them to “come and see” the truth of the Risen Lord alive in us through our worship and everyday lives. We welcome them to shape their lives, as we are striving to shape our own lives, according to God’s plan concretely revealed in Jesus’ death and resurrection, attested to through the witness of the Gospel and the Church. Therefore, the “welcoming” part of our parish mission suggests more than offering a smile and a “high five” to those who come through the door.
For example, we offer a false welcome when we are not clear what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ who gathers and worships as Assumption parish in Centereach. We offer a false welcome when we do not state clearly, and show by our actions, that indeed all are invited, but the invitation necessarily involves taking the Gospel seriously, just as we are striving to take the Gospel seriously. This is true especially in the area of religious formation of our children beginning at baptism. We offer the welcoming invitation, but it needs to be clear that the invitation involves an expectation that those who participate will begin or continue to take steps which deepen their relationship with the Lord by embracing the Gospel. If that is not clear, then we are not welcoming them with the Gospel, but merely enabling others to view the Gospel as some type of spiritual retail, consumer-generated enterprise which has some interesting odds and ends available for some want we have at a particular time. That is not the Gospel. The Gospel to which we welcome them is life-changing, mind-boggling, revolutionary, bigger than big, powerful, transforming, Spirit-filled, not wimpy, murky, tepid or timid.
The Mission Statement continues by reminding us that our welcoming takes place by “sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ….” This sharing is more than happy faces and smiles. It’s the lived and visible reality that Jesus is alive and in our midst through the power of the Holy Spirit. The sharing necessarily involves our inviting people into that covenant relationship which the Lord God offers us through our baptism, is “confirmed” in our Confirmation, and continued in the Eucharist. The sharing is our willingness through word and deed to live that life AND to celebrate it when we gather for the Eucharist.
The Mission Statement then focuses on three ways this sharing takes place: through faith, through prayer, and through the sacraments. Each connects to and cannot stand apart from the others.
Faith, of course, is more than communicating a set of propositions, rules, dogmas, doctrines which are part of our Catholic community. Faith is an action word, a verb not a noun. It’s the very way we view reality and the actions we then take because we see reality with God’s eyes. Being an action word, faith is our lived experience grounded in the abounding love of God revealed in Jesus Christ crucified raised from the dead. That cosmic-shaking reality not only colors our reality, but IS our reality. We now live and make decisions based on the Gospel proclamation that God has irrevocably done a mighty work in the resurrection of Christ which resets the cosmos onto its proper axis, namely, circling around God rather than having God circle around us!
When we share the Good News of Jesus Christ through faith we do so by living differently from those around us. We are the ones who love, who forgive, who share with others from our sustenance, who worship and praise the living God with exuberance especially in the celebration of the Eucharist. We are the ones who are willing to make decisions – family, budget, communal, political, moral – based on the Gospel reality that Jesus is alive in the power of the Spirit and now everything is different. This sharing of faith is both spoken and active. More often than not, it’s active first and then when people ask “why we act in such a way” it becomes verbal as we tell them why. It’s this sharing that is central to our definition of being a welcoming community.
The area of prayer takes in several aspects. First, there is personal prayer. We’re a welcoming community because individually we are welcoming the Lord Jesus into our own lives through personal prayer. That prayer can take many forms: Scripture, traditional, quiet prayer, music, art, etc. Please remember that prayer in our personal life also changes throughout our lives. For example, a person may find one type of prayer helpful at one point, but then realizes that the Lord is leading him/her into another type of prayer at another time of his/her life. It’s not important that we pray as we think we should pray, but as we are able to pray at a particular time.
Another aspect of prayer is communal. This has two parts. There is the communal experience which takes place when we pray together at a novena, a prayer meeting, a prayer service that starts a meeting, etc. There is also the communal experience that takes place when we gather for the celebration of Eucharist. This is a unique type of communal prayer that is the core of our communal identity. This aspect of communal prayer is radically different from all other prayer. In fact, if we come to the Eucharist thinking we are there for personal prayer or even for the first aspect I explained of communal prayer, then we’ve missed the point completely. Our communal celebration of the Eucharist is the worship we give to the Father through Jesus in the power of the Spirit. This celebration literally joins us to Jesus so that together we offer ONE cry of praise, ONE gift of love, ONE sacrifice of self. Here it’s all about God, not about us. This is part of being a welcoming community because it welcomes others into the cosmic exchange of seeing and celebrating the deepest reality through the prism of faith, buoyed by God’s Word, and sustained by Jesus’ Body and Blood. Absolutely awesome, to say the least!
We know that there are seven sacraments. What are they? How do they help us fulfill our goal to be a welcoming community?
Rather than offer a doctrinal definition of a sacrament, I’d rather speak of them as celebrations which help us focus on various aspects of Kingdom life – Kingdom life which will be “ordinary” when Jesus brings about the new heavens and the new earth. For example, in baptism we celebrate the fact that we are incorporated into the body of Christ. As Scripture says, we die with him to rise with him. In the Kingdom, that reality – being one in the body of Christ – will be accomplished for all. There will be no need to have a specific time when it occurs. God will have accomplished it fully and completely in Christ Jesus, and we will not be creating barriers, as we do today, to that reality. Using marriage as another example, we see that in the Kingdom there will be no need of marriage. What it proclaims – that the way the husband loves the wife and the wife loves the husband is a sign of how Jesus loves the Church – will be a done deal. It will be obvious by our relationship to one another how Jesus loves the Church; hence we will not need a special celebration to proclaim this truth.
Therefore, when we share the Good News of Jesus Christ through the sacraments, we identify various human life experiences (birth, meal-sharing, sickness, forgiveness, marriage) to highlight and proclaim what will be the norm in the Kingdom of God. For that reason, our celebration of the sacraments must be based on a lived reality, not wishful thinking. For example, if we celebrate the sacrament of baptism but do not practice the faith which baptism proclaims, we are welcoming people into an untruth, not into a living relationship with the Lord. If we celebrate First Eucharist or Confirmation, but have chosen to absent ourselves or our child from the community’s celebration of the Eucharist, then we are welcoming people into an untruth, not into a living relationship with the Lord. This might seem rigid to some, but as a parish family which has its Mission Statement as a banner on its bulletin and parish website, we need to remain focused on who we say we are. It’s only by being consistently honest in this regard that we will be able to welcome people in the truest sense of the word.
I know that this will involve a long process of ongoing re-evaluation, discernment, fine tuning, dying to self, etc. As a parish we do that together, allowing the Lord to prune us so that our Mission Statement becomes clearer and clearer in all that we say and do. I personally am excited about how, guided by the power of the Spirit, this will unfold. I remain hopeful and confident that the Lord’s plan for us, which our parish leaders have articulated in our Mission Statement, will bear fruit for the glory of the Father.