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Open Wide the Doors to Invite All to Church

An inviting Church entices others to experience Christ

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AckermanFor those of you who have churches with no air-conditioning, I can empathize. I have experienced more than a few summer weekends that have been oppressive and uncomfortable for priests and parishioners alike.

Several of my assignments have had no AC, and as a result we have had to rely upon open doors and windows and noisy industrial fans to push around hot air in the sweltering summer. While open doors and windows invite cool breezes, they also invite God’s creation to wander in. I have had to chase pigeons, squirrels, chipmunks (much faster than you think) and even a dog out of the church. However, the dog, as one usher informed me, was probably Catholic since he arrived late, sat in the back and departed when Communion ended. I am not exactly certain what attracted our furry and feathered friends, but they certainly seemed to enjoy their time, and several appeared to feel right at home.

Although these animals might have felt at home, I have often wondered if people feel the same comfort while entering the Church to discover Christ. St. John Paul II, in his inauguration homily for his pontificate, said: “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ!” I am not certain that he intended to literally open the doors of the Church, but it is a good start to allow others entry into the Faith.

A priest of our diocese told me that he went to lock up his church one summer Sunday and discovered two young men sitting in a pew. They had skateboards and were dressed in ripped jeans, heavy-metal T-shirts and enough earrings to make a pirate jealous. It seemed to him that they were looking for a skateboard park or Hot Topic and got lost.

He was ready to ask them to leave, but his dialogue with them surprised him. “Hey man,” they said to him. “This place is pretty cool. Do you mind if we sit here?”

“What do you like about it?” the priest asked them.

“It’s quiet,” they replied, “and things just seem to make sense here.”

Those young men stayed for at least an hour, and I think they even came back several more times. Although, initially, that priest was suspicious that they were casing the joint, those young men seemingly had a profound encounter with God. That encounter would not have been possible without that church being open, and without its free invitation to enter.

An open church has another effect in that it allows the mystery of God to penetrate the secular outside world. When I was a seminarian, the church I was assigned to had no AC, and as a result our pipe organ and hymns could be heard throughout the surrounding neighborhood.

I was outside with the pastor one day in August planting flowers in our Mary garden when we heard the neighbor children next door singing “Immaculate Mary” while they played in their yard. The pastor and I looked at each other quizzically since we knew those neighbors were not parishioners and were not Catholic. Their mother saw us looking over as they sang and replied, “Oh, they hear that song a lot with the windows open, and they love to sing it!”

Those kids even knew verses two and three! The new evangelization I suppose is more accessible than we imagine.

Am I suggesting that we eliminate air-conditioning in favor of opening our windows and doors? Absolutely not! As an elderly woman told me: “Father, when are we getting air? I thought we were supposed to avoid hell and not emulate it!”

I also am not foolish enough to think that we can stay open all the time like a convenience store or a mini-mart. However, I realize how important it is to be an inviting Church that entices others to experience Christ that is open to those searching for more.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus responds to his disciples’ questions with the phrase, “Come, and you will see” (1:39). Our openness means that at times we may encounter God’s creatures in a variety of forms looking for peace, security and fulfillment. Perhaps that summer heat is more of a blessing than it first seems. It certainly attracts nature, but it also invites relief for those who seek salvation. 

FATHER MICHAEL ACKERMAN is the parochial vicar at Resurrection Parish, Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, and chaplain at Seton LaSalle Catholic High School in Pittsburgh.

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