Out of those 500 Masses, I probably could count on two hands the number of times that we’ve sat in the pews on the left side of the church. That aisle that stretches down the center of the church? It’s more like a border, with separate countries on either side. When we’ve had to sit with the citizens of the left-hand side because we rolled into a crowded Mass late or for whatever reason, it felt like the home team being forced to sit in the visitors’ dugout — it’s the same game, played by the same team in the same stadium, but everything feels off.
And so we sit in the same spot nearly every Mass — far right aisle, toward the middle. It’s where we feel most comfortable — like why we all sit in the same spots at the dining room table without technically having assigned seats. That’s just the way it is.
All of this is to say: We’re creatures of habit. And while that isn’t always a bad thing, sometimes it does make us creatures of bad habits. For instance, we’re not always the most warm and inviting bunch.
A few years ago, I read an article about a priest who did one thing that radically changed the culture in his parish: He asked that the first people in each pew scoot to the middle in order to welcome others to sit nearby. I was really taken by the idea, and so the following Sunday, as we slipped into our familiar seats, I asked my wife to scooch toward the middle in case anybody else wanted to join us in our pew. She looked at me askance and, jokingly, said, “We’re Catholic. We don’t do that.” She wasn’t wrong. We don’t.
Look, I’m not pointing the finger here. I’m as guilty as anybody. Like all the faithful, I’m called to “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19); but I can’t even bother to go, therefore, and scoot over 10 feet so that others might sit in the pew with me. St. Francis Xavier traveled more than 6,000 miles — in the 16th century! — from Spain to India and Japan in order to spread the Good News, and we can’t be bothered to move to the middle of the pew?
I thought about all of this — our inhospitality, our coldness to our friends and neighbors, our safe spaces — when I opened a recent email from the Archdiocese of Detroit. For the past few years, Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron has led an evangelization effort there called “Unleash the Gospel,” which is a product of an archdiocesan synod that was held in 2016. This particular email was a call to Catholics to invite others to Christmas Mass, with very clear instructions: 1. Go to massfinder.org; 2. Find a parish near you or search for a specific one; 3. Click on the Mass time you’d like to attend; 4. Invite your friends on social media. On the website, there is a video with beautiful Christmas images and the following voiceover:
“Ah, Christmastime. Finding the perfect present, picking out the perfect tree, preparing the perfect meal, choosing the perfect outfit for Christmas Mass. Yes, Mass — in the Church. The parking lot will be crowded, a baby will be crying, and someone’s probably going to sing a little too loud and out of tune — because none of us are perfect. And we’re all trying to figure out some of the big questions, so we’re looking forward to seeing you. All of us. We’ll all be together, because we’re all part of the same family. And it’s hard to imagine, but we’re celebrating God becoming part of our family. So, let’s do it together. This Christmas, we’re thankful that you’re one of us: a Catholic. Part of the family.”
It was a nice reminder that Christmas is the perfect time to share our faith with others. For many who have fallen away from the Church or have never darkened the door of a Catholic parish, there is a natural yearning to connect our secular celebrations with the reason for all of the lights and food and presents: the birth of our Savior. For many, they are just waiting on an invitation. So take a moment and think about who could use a nudge; who do you want to invite to Christmas Mass this year?
Take the leap, reach out — and scooch over. There is plenty of room.
Scott Warden is managing editor of Our Sunday Visitor.