Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Yes, I did say “haven,” not “heaven,” God knows. But the two words are related. The meaning of “haven” is a secure place, a “safe space,” if you will. I am thinking of church as home, a place where when you knock on the door, they have to take you in. In that sense, we are like family. We take in our members, of course, but also their friends, even if they are not dressed up or in an ideal state. A haven is a harbor where every ship can find refuge from storms. Even if it does not call that harbor home, it is a place where healing and peace can be found to prepare for the next journey. No it isn’t heaven yet, but it’s a haven.

During our Synod listening sessions, we heard many echoes of the theme that “The Church” is not always welcoming. This “unwelcomeness” was typically described as judgmental or, more often, non-inclusive attitudes toward, among others, women, divorced people and those who might be placed — or consider themselves — somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. These, at least, were the more common examples cited. I suspect, however, the “unwelcomeness” refers not so much, or only, to attitudes or positions inside a given church building or at a liturgical celebration, but even the anthropological and theological non-negotiables of our faith, to wit, the nature and acts of the human person, the meaning of marriage and the sacredness of the sacraments vs. the disposition and spiritual worthiness of the recipient. 

Besides “hot button” issues of concern, I am sure many more of us could cite feelings of unwelcomeness if we ever brought young children to church whose behavior is challenging to control. In some cases — I do get letters — people write of being scolded at communion time (especially during COVID) for presenting to receive on the tongue or for not standing if they preferred to kneel. Have you ever tried to enter a pew when the person sitting on the end expected you to crawl over them? I suppose, if we think about it, all of us could name instances when someone in church or associated with it made us feel not so welcome. 

Not to minimize or equate any such experiences, a serious customer satisfaction survey might reveal some interesting results: how people feel about their parish’s success in creating a welcoming space. For this seems to be something most seek and consider an important part of their decision to be a part of a parish community, or even “the Church” at all. Increasingly, church going has become more intentional than geographical, especially if other factors are considered like parking facilities, lighting, the sound system — and the quality and content (and length!) of homilies. My point is that so many factors can go into what any person feels is a welcoming church for them.

Pope Francis, visiting New York, is said to have quipped in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, when looking for a restroom, that he did not know it was a church only built for angels. Apocryphal or not, the condition of and convenience of bathrooms or handicapped access can also be factors in “feeling welcome.” All the normal creature comforts may not make a church like heaven, but at least something of a haven, a safe space to come to. This, if nothing else, may be a great gift to many who find the world we live in an increasingly hostile place.

How many people have we heard lately saying something like, “I feel like I am living in hell!” Jean Paul Sartre was famous for saying, “hell is other people.” His existentialist philosophy viewed people as autonomous subjects, who were essentially rivals for a place in the world, selves who saw in other selves challenges to the space they occupied in life, for each of whom life was basically a negotiation to try to keep the aggressive other from impeding one’s own self-interest. His viewpoint has been cartooned as “the Sartrian stare,” where merely being looked at by another person was the equivalent of being annihilated by them virtually. Pretty bleak, yet prophetic in its own way. Many today experience the world as hostile, where everyone only asks, “what’s in it for me?”

Were a soul seeking refuge to consider the Catholic Church — or A Catholic church — a place to explore, or even just to enter, we could start with “you are welcome” and, even if they be a sheep not of our fold, invite them to “come and see.” Or we could follow a kind of checklist mentality and, if all the boxes are not checked, inform them that there is no seat for them inside. Experienced travelers know, of course, that “sold out” often means only sold out at a certain price — or for certain people. There are often extra seats in a plane or a theatre ”x-d” off for last minute or special cases. Not a very inclusive policy!

The point I am making is that many seek harbor from the hell they are living in. They don’t expect us to be heaven (do we?), but at least hope for a place where they can rest, if only for a while, to be among people who will not reject, judge or exclude them flat out. Maybe they have been beaten up, emotionally, physically or spiritually, and are looking just for a place to breathe and recover a bit. Maybe they have been living in a way not quite in harmony with the holy life to which all are called and Christians aspire to. If we follow the example of Jesus, however, we will meet people where they are, even as we do not want to leave them where they are.
Our teaching does not require us to exclude or condemn people who present as gay, trans, divorced or cohabiting (unmarried). We welcome anyone to worship with us and attend our workshops, regardless of marital or relational status. We can listen and talk. This is not the same as being in communion, which takes time, but all may be welcome into our community, to be with us, safely and lovingly. 

Relational and “identity” matters of which I just spoke are not so much in control of a person as they first seem, or the person may assert. The one divorced may not always be the one who initiated the action. People whose gender or sexual identity are different from their biological often speak of discovering not choosing it. I think most people know or at least try to understand this. And none of us has all the answers or can read the heart of a person but God. One way to start, however, is to invite every person in and allow conversation to flow. 

With the exception of Holy Mary, every saint had a past, so far as I know, and began as a sinner. We praise Mary as a “refuge of sinners” in her litany, a model of the Church as safe haven, who always hears our prayer. Asking for her intercession, we might pray to become more than haven where all, broken or less so, can enter to find a harbor in which to heal and be fortified for the journey. Welcome does not mean everything is okay, but it is the start of a walk down the path of grace. And where better to find that path than among a people commissioned by The Way himself to lead everyone to him, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?