(To read Part 1 of this story for our journey to finding a parish, click here.)
Last week, I shared my story about how we found our new parish last year. I was curious what others' first impressions of their parishes were, so I asked a few of our Catholic social media friends what their experiences were:
Sara from To Jesus, Sincerely: "We went to Mass at our new parish today. I was nervous about the kids in a new church. Would they behave? Would they be welcome? Would there be other families or would we stick out like a sore thumb?We walked to the front and found our pew. When we sat down, the first thing I noticed brought tears to my eyes. Every seat had a hymnal and a missalette - and a children's book! Every. single. seat! I felt welcomed. Encouraged. Loved. I felt like our family belonged right here in the pew. Not in a crying room, not relegated to a different parish, not left back at home, but right here. Right here with Jesus. Let the little children come to Him."
Anna from Beautiful, Camouflaged, Mess of a Life: Anna and her family are a military family, and she explained that whenever possible, her family chooses to attend Mass on base. "Otherwise," she said, "I look for a parish community which offers family-friendly activities - not in name only, but truly in spirit (ones who encourage little kids, rather than roll eyes at the back of parents’ heads). I have been known to attend Mass at civilian parishes sans kids, to get a feel for that before taking my kids with me."
Kristi from Hail Marry: "When I was 26, I had a two year-old daughter and a divorce under my belt. The parish where I sporadically attended didn't offer much for single mama divorcees like me, and the pastor had been incredibly rude regarding baptizing my daughter as a separated Catholic woman without her father (from whom I had a protective order). I also felt little more than a number there. I eventually stopped going to Mass altogether. Then, just before the following Lent, I was inspired to join a Catholic Daughters of the Americas court at a parish in the neighboring diocese. When I went to Mass there, my tiny dancer insisted we sit in the very front row (so we did). While you couldn't call her out as misbehaving, she was actively walking to the end of the pew to me and back. Being in view of everyone, I was slightly self-conscious. The woman behind me said, 'You have a beautiful family' at the sign of peace. After Mass, the deacon came up to me and echoed this sentiment. The woman, who turned out to be his wife, welcomed us to the parish. The parish was having a Mardi Gras event for kids ahead of Lent. It was so beautifully organized and put-together. I came for CDA but fully intended to remain a parishioner at my old parish. When I was warmly welcomed and saw the amazing care that went into the children's ministry, I knew I was home."
Amy from Prayer, Wine, Chocolate: "When my husband and I went house shopping in our area, I wanted to live in my parish. I went to daily Mass there and absolutely loved the priest. He would often say, with his heart, 'My parents loved me so much, but that love DOES NOT COMPARE to the love God has for us!' I also was attracted to the parish because another parishioner who lived there was a friend from college and she was telling me about the special needs school that was founded by our parish pastor. The Pastor was also so kind; not only did he start this special needs school that the parish school would interact with, but whenever he spoke about money, you could tell he didn't feel comfortable asking for anything, but would always say 'whatever you can give.' We were not disappointed from our first impression and 12 years later still love our parish!"
Elayne from Annunciation Designs: "Last year my husband and I moved to my hometown. We went to Mass the first weekend at the parish I attended as a child. The Church itself was rebuilt in the 2000s in a bland, white, windowless, statueless style. My toddler seemed to be the only little one in attendance, and every whisper drew stares. (I believe the nursery was open and most little ones were there.) The next weekend we attended a different local parish. Older ladies complimented my son on his behavior, the priest stopped to introduce himself, and there were plenty of toddler sounds throughout the pews. We felt immediately at home and have loved our year at this parish!"
Alicia from Mamie Coeuraimant: "When I came back to my home area when my husband and I retired, there was one thing that was huge for me - in our little church of St. Mary - they SING! I love that and had forgotten that in the Ottawa area one thing I found sad is that no one sings at church; they let the cantor or choir do it all. In our parish - we sing always and sometimes the people in the pews sing louder than the choir and it sounds wonderful ;)"
Holy Catholic Marriage: "We absolutely LOVE our church. I can’t count the number of meetings we have had with the priest when Tim was thinking of becoming Catholic again. He interrogated the priest with every question he’s ever misunderstood like why do we 'worship' Mary or 'pray to' saints or have 73 books in the Bible and so on and so forth and he answered everything so patiently and lovingly! Not to mention, the deacon and his wife helped minister to Tim from the very beginning at RCIA so well and we look up to them so much as a great godly couple! We have made so many great friends of all ages and backgrounds which is great because we really wanted to build a Catholic circle since we didn’t really know anyone who shares our faith besides one or two people. St. Mary’s is such an amazing church to call home! We can’t wait to continue to learn and fellowship there, get involved in more ministries, and raise our kids there!"
So if you work at a parish, what can you take away from all of this?
Your people can make or break "landing" that new parishioner. Many of the testimonials above involved someone reaching out - during the Sign of Peace, through RCIA, or even a simple hello at the end of Mass. Consider putting a notice in the bulletin or the announcements to remind parishioners to welcome new or visiting families to the parish and especially train your staff to do this as well (perhaps even think about creating a greeter ministry with people who don't just smile and say hello as they open the door, but also strike up conversations with new visitors).
Even more so than welcoming new parishioners, it's especially important to be welcoming to young children. Many parishes wonder why they don't attract young families to Mass, but not allowing kids to be kids is probably a huge part of this lack. Again, this message can be reiterated in a bulletin notice or announcement, but this must also be reinforced by the priests and pastor. Even if you aren't a "kid person," taking a few moments to say hello or having children's materials in the pews or bulletin will help to add to this positive attitude (and also make these families feel supported in their vocation!).
Active communities are welcome communities. Church groups and ministries, especially those devoted to learning more about the faith in a casual environment, will automatically correlate to the church seeming more welcoming. Your parishioners will feel and look like a family, one that new visitors want to be a part of.