By Barb Arland-Fye
Jeremiah Crow, a high school sophomore who has attended Burlington Notre Dame School since kindergarten, found the courage to join the Catholic Church through his close friendship with a new student this academic year. His friend, Braxton Thompson, was not Catholic but developed a love for the Church through his participation in the Mass and his interactions with staff, faculty, fellow students and parish priests who were present to the students. Jeremiah’s brother, Isaiah, joined them on that journey to the Catholic Church. The three teens became members at the Easter Vigil.
Our diocese has embarked on a synodal journey to discover what it means to be a Church that is welcoming and that engenders a sense of belonging. For the Burlington Notre Dame High School students, that meant taking into account each one’s individual needs and story. It required a family of faith, each member making themselves available, to create a sense of community to which the teens felt connected.
“The Holy Spirit is beckoning us to be communities of belonging, of radical kinship and hospitality, of reaching out in new ways to welcome those who do not feel like they belong,” Bishop Thomas Zinkula said in his letter on the feast of the Epiphany (https://tinyurl.com/25nze6bd). “A Church of welcoming and belonging begins with you and me, in our homes and our relationships, and in our parishes and schools.”
“This is not about adding one more thing to the to-do list. Instead, it is about integrating welcoming and belonging into everything we do,” says Patrick Schmadeke, diocesan director of evangelization (https://tinyurl.com/2en9smeu). He said we ought to ask ourselves, “How do I join the joys and help bear the sufferings of others?”
For Tim Elskamp, who lives with Down syndrome, his sense of welcoming and belonging comes from serving as an altar server at St. Ann Parish in Long Grove. The pastor, Father Joe Wolf, tapped into Tim’s gifts, focusing on what he can do in assisting at Mass. Welcoming and belonging requires us to get to know another person and the gifts that person brings to the table and to our lives.
We learn the spirituality of welcoming and belonging by doing it, not just as part of a welcoming committee, but as individuals, parishes, schools and other groups for whom the doing becomes second nature. An insight our diocese gained from synod listening sessions is that a “parish should feel like home.” For some, including those who identify as LGBTQ+, divorced, immigrants and young people, our parishes might not feel like home.
Some best practices from parish councils and school boards in our diocese that would help us to build a Church that is welcoming and engenders a sense of belonging:
- Establish a welcoming process to accompany people as they enter into the community.
- On a regular basis, ask new families questions such as: How are things going? What would you like? What do you need?
- Place emphasis on fellowship events; personally invite people on the edge of the community to join.
- Invite diverse leadership in the community.
- Small faith groups, such as Bible studies, should extend an invitation to newcomers.
- Develop habits of welcome, such as looking people in the eye and saying hello.
Our clergy, in their synod listening sessions, point out some additional insights that would benefit all of us in our journey to be a Church that welcomes and engenders a sense of belonging:
- Consider these questions: If someone moved into the community, how would I know? When they do come to Mass, might they feel lost? Will a newcomer feel lost on our website?
- Focus on meeting basic needs, then people will “trust us to walk with them through harder things.”
- Ask people to participate. A common response is, “nobody ever asked me.”
- Tap into people’s desires. People desire to be known as they truly are. A University of Iowa graduate said a lasting impression of the Newman Catholic Student Center was the priest director calling him by name as a new student, and remembering his name.
Being a welcoming Church in which people feel a sense of belonging means giving of our precious time, a willingness to be present and attentive to others. Father James Flattery, parochial vicar of Divine Mercy Parish-Burlington and St. Mary Parish-Dodgeville, met with the Notre Dame students on his day off because he wanted to meet their needs. The families of those students attended the Easter Vigil — perhaps their first time at a Mass — and what an impression it made on them!
We journey with others — in and outside of our Church — to reciprocate the gift of faith that we cherish.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor