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What is a welcoming church?

  • 20 September 2022
Last Sunday at Mass the Parish Priest, a sensible, experienced man, mentioned that next week we’d have First Communion and increased numbers of people were expected at Mass. Then he smiled and said: ‘We probably won’t see them again the following week, but that’s OK.’ I was pleased to hear that. It is of the very nature of Catholicism that we welcome people, but don’t demand they conform to our expectations.

We’re not a sectarian or exclusive church. The very word ‘catholic’ means universal, big, embracing. I’m reminded of debates at clergy conferences about whether priests should baptize the children of non-practising Catholics. My view has always been ‘yes’, reach out to people, be like Jesus and welcome them.

But there’s a flip side to this. Earlier this month in La Croix, the bishop of Odienné in West Africa’s Ivory Coast, Alain Clément Amiézi, complained that ‘People are baptized without becoming Christian, the sacraments are given without evangelizing.’ He says that ‘the number of faithful who are truly committed to … the virtues of the gospel is infinitesimal.’

Speaking of African converts he said that just being seen at church is insufficient, that committed Christians have to break the tribal logic of social convention and be willing to critique societal norms and practices in the light of the gospel. That that requires a spirituality of faith and courage.

My purpose here is not to critique of African Christianity. You can see exactly the same superficiality in the conversion of Europe in the first millennium. We have an entirely romanticized notion of the medieval ‘ages of faith’ and the notion of Ireland as ‘the island of saints and scholars.’

Recently historians like Anton Wessels and Jan Romein have questioned whether Europe was ever really Christian at all. Wessels argues that medieval missionaries attempted to convert pagan Europe by Christianizing the culture, transforming it by re-interpreting it. Jan Romein says that ‘medieval Christianity was only a thin veneer,’ a superficial overlay with people’s basic pagan beliefs remaining unchanged. This is understandable when mass baptisms followed the conversion of the local ruler, or when people like the Saxons under Charlemagne were faced with the choice of either baptism or death.

'The whole educational ethos of the school must be founded in the Christ-like values of love, compassion, acceptance and forgiveness and on a genuinely Catholic understanding of inclusivity and freedom of conscience.'

The result was that medieval ‘christendom’, the combined