In monasteries, one monk is traditionally assigned the role of porter and it is he who welcomes the outside world. The porter, like our parish greeter and usher today, is the first face of the church. The Christian virtue of hospitality is an important principle; the porters of the monastery know that they are to welcome all guests as Christ.
Monasteries are places where the ancient traditions of the Church still hold sway, and the monks and sisters can teach us something about how we should live as Catholics. As a people who constantly ponder the scriptures in their daily lives, they know that the virtue of hospitality is a part of our Christian tradition and is a Biblical principle that goes back to the beginning of time. Pope Benedict XVI called it “one of man’s original virtues.” So it is important for our parish to be a welcoming place, but it is also important for our homes to be places of hospitality. Our Catholic tradition demands it.
In the first pages of Genesis, three strangers walk up to the encampment of Abram and Sarah by the Oak of Mamre, and Abram and Sarah welcome them with hospitality. While visiting, the three mysterious guests announce that Abram and Sarah will have a son, which given the couple’s advanced age, seemed ridiculously impossible. But when their son was born, thinking back, it became clear to Abram and Sarah that they had been in the presence of angels. This was not the only time in the Old Testament where strange guests turned out to be messengers of God.
Hospitality in the ancient world was essential. There were few wells, even fewer inns, and political boundaries were always in flux, so all travelers placed their lives into the hands of others whenever they made a journey, praying not only for safe passage, but also for hospitality. The stranger was to be welcomed and not harassed. The Israelites had themselves been strangers and sojourners in the past, so God commanded them to be a hospitable people, even to those travelers whom they might have seen as their enemies. Hosts were to provide food and drink, and water to wash a guest’s feet, and a place to rest. This was the honorable way of life for the people of God (and by the way, this same principle should also inform how we respond to new immigrants in our neighborhoods today).
Building upon that tradition, the New Testament reiterates the importance of hospitality, because again, we may be entertaining angels unaware. Brotherly love, loving our enemies, and being generous to others is also based on the example of Jesus and His apostles. Just pause and consider how our Lord lived. He was homeless. The Son of Man had no place to lay His head, but He was shown hospitality by others, welcomed into the homes of strangers where He ate meals, and where He taught and preached and healed. Not surprisingly, our Lord used examples of hospitality in His teaching, comparing heaven to a banquet, and also Heaven as His Father’s house with many rooms. He tied our future judgment to how well we fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, and welcomed the stranger.
As Catholics (and we might add, especially as Southern Catholics) we have a reputation to uphold. Southern hospitality is famous, and not the overly formal kind of hospitality, but a genteel form that puts people at ease. This is a great heritage we have as a people, and one that we need to work hard not to lose. And let us appreciate how the virtue of hospitality is itself evangelical. It isn’t just our “southern-ness” that matters here – it is primarily our Faith. Consider that it is by our charity, love, and fellowship that the world will recognize us as followers of the Christ. If all of life is a pilgrimage to eternity, then how do we collectively and individually show hospitality to our fellow sojourners not just here in the parish, but even in our own homes?
Certainly in the parish we have a responsibility to welcome others. Our first pope, St. Peter, tells us that we must practice hospitality ungrudgingly, so our greeters and ushers should be like the porters of old, opening doors and greeting guests with a smile. We should all strive to keep our church’s portico and Narthex as noble and welcoming spaces, free of clutter, where people can greet friends, gather to talk, and to socialize. These spaces are specifically meant to encourage fellowship. We want everyone to feel at home in the Church, and these are the places that make the first impression in the minds of our visitors, so these spaces should imbue a sense of graciousness. They are transitional spaces that take us from the hostile secular world into the quiet of the church beyond where guests can be introduced into God’s house.
The brochure racks, the bulletin boards, and Greeter’s Desk should be kept neat and tidy. We should never presume to leave propaganda in the Narthex, or to put up advertisements on the bulletin boards, or ever use these spaces for politics. These spaces represent the Church and we should respect the parish’s responsibility over them. Always ask about setting up a table or putting out flyers, as what goes in the Narthex reflects upon us all. Moreover, we should be very dutiful in picking up after ourselves, thus leaving the Narthex in dignified order as an important public space that we all share.
Likewise our homes should also be places where hospitality is known. If we have a guest room, it should be one of the nicest rooms in the house, tidy and made up and ready to welcome guests. Naturally there should be a beautiful crucifix in the guest room, and an image of our Lady. A beautiful icon might make sense in the guest room (maybe one of the Holy Trinity represented as the three angelic visitors of Abraham). We might have a prayer book on the bed stand as well. Keep in mind that as Catholics we want to share our Christian Faith with our guests, and we want to create a clean place for them not only to sleep, but also to read and to pray. It isn’t just about having an extra toothbrush and some nice bars of soap in the guest bathroom. So imagine if our Lord was to knock on the door and to enter our home. How would we want His bedroom to look and feel? If it is good enough for Him, then it is good enough for our guests.