Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, knows something about going for the heart, doesn’t he? In his final homily delivered at the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families, he touched on the importance of little gestures of love within the family. Here’s part of that homily (emphasis mine):
Faith opens a “window” to the presence and working of the Spirit. It shows us that, like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures. “Whoever gives you a cup of water in my name will not go unrewarded,” says Jesus (cf. Mk 9:41). These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection, and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith. (Read full homily here.)
Love is shown by little things.
Did those words strike a chord with you, too? They remind me of St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s quote, “Without love, deeds, even the most brilliant, count as nothing.” And that’s precisely what our Holy Father is encouraging during his homily: our faith, and everything that flows through it, must be rooted in love.
Maybe it’s just because I’m a deacon’s wife, but I tend to ponder the health of parish life probably more than the typical Catholic. I immediately started thinking about how these small gestures of love are critical for building up the heart and livelihood of a parish as well. It has been said that all politics is local, and the same might be said of conversion. To effect conversion of heart, a real in-the-flesh, person-to-person evangelization is required. It must be a grassroots effort, bubbling up from our local parish communities. The phrase culture of encounter comes to mind.
I'm curious: have you seen any new faces in your parish since Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States? Maybe the new face is someone who slowly fell away from her Catholic roots, and she longs to meet Jesus in the Eucharist once again. Maybe it’s a curious soul simply inspired by something he heard or saw from the media coverage and now wants to learn more about the Catholic Church. Maybe it’s simply a casual Catholic who is suddenly struck with zeal. Whatever the specifics, I’ve been thinking about how we can better welcome that “stranger” among us, to invite him or her into our parish homes and hearts.
I jotted down some quick thoughts, ideas I view as simple gestures and little acts of love, I can do to welcome that stranger and foster a culture of encounter within my parish.
"We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do." There's a reason that quote from Blessed Mother Teresa is so popular. Because it's true. I once told a story over at my blog about an elderly couple who sat behind me at Mass on a day where my kids were rather squirrelly. That couples' smiles, kindness, and words of encouragement have done more for me than any "how to survive Mass with little ones" types of blog posts or conversations. That couple taught me how important it is to show love and hospitality through smiles and body language.
To the greeters, ushers, readers, cantors, deacons, priests and all who play a role in the liturgy: remember, you don't need permission to smile. All too often I've seen rigor and formality trump the joyfulness and peace that the Mass begets. A simple smile from the altar can do much to increase the mood of the larger congregation.
The St. Francis Shuffle
I'm not sure if they are still doing it, but a large parish here in my city, St. Francis of Assisi, has a large congregation and attracts many visitors week in and out. They once had a local custom called the "St. Francis Shuffle.” Before Mass, the priest stepped up to the ambo and asked pew-sitters to scoot toward the middle, thereby making room for people standing in the back or for families with small children who needed an aisle seat. The priest announced something like, "This is our home. Just like in your home when you offer your guests a seat, we are going to make room and offer every one here a place to sit." That little gesture of scooting in and making room for others played well there.
Maybe this is just a personal desire because I love to sing, but a really simple act that takes hardly any effort to complete is posting the song numbers and announcing them clearly so the congregation can participate and sing along. Speaking of singing ...
Even if you sing like a dying frog, still sing out! There's a great story about a woman who claims she did, in fact, sound like that dying frog and gave up only to mouth the lyrics during Mass. A nun then gave her some great advice. “People with beautiful voices should sing out loud, but you should sing louder. If you offend the ear of God enough, He might take mercy on us all and change it for you, He is merciful after all. If God, who is the author of all Creation, can see beauty in the face of a warthog, surely He can find the loveliness in the effort that you make.”
I suspect plenty of dying frogs are eager to sing out at your parish. And you know what an entire choir of dying frogs just might signal to a newcomer? That this parish is down-to-earth, approachable, free from the trappings of pomp and circumstance, and humble.
Sign of Peace
A single woman once mentioned that the sign of peace can be a somewhat lonely point during the Mass. She suggested a nice gesture for families to consider doing is to extend a sign peace to that single individual even before exchanging niceties with family members. I had never considered her point, but I certainly view her suggestion as a little act that could help her feel more included in the church family.
Chick-fil-A calls their frontline employees "hospitality team members." Their role is to warmly welcome customers, keep the place looking clean and homey, and help customers find a place to sit and be comfortable. Sound like something parishes could do, too? Why not develop a hospitality team and allow parishioners who have the charism of hospitality to share those gifts on the front line?
These are just a few ideas on little gestures of love we can share within our parish homes. Let’s pass the proverbial basket and collect more ideas here. What small acts can we do within our parishes to welcome the stranger? Join the discussion below!
Copyright 2015 Lisa A. Schmidt
Photo from Aleteia, used with permission. Text added in Canva.
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