When I was an evangelical protestant, the intentionality in bringing people to Christ colored everything we did. I remember working at one camp for “unchurched” youth and we would rake lines into the gravel pathways every morning with the hopes that even the neatness underneath the campers feet would reveal to them that there is love, and therefore Love; and that as someone went through the effort to show them love, it was just a reflection, a foretaste even, of God’s Love for them.
Now I am a Catholic, and I know there can be skepticism about the evangelical-ness of Evangelicals. Perhaps they just want more members for their club, with reasons that aren’t as pure as they seem. Maybe it is more about feathers in a cap or dollars in the bank. I can’t speak for everyone, and Catholics of all people know what a bad apple in the bunch can do, but I found the little circles I lived in to be utterly sincere and motivated entirely by a burning and genuine love for Jesus Christ. I will never forget praying with one man at the same camp who could barely speak the words as tears broke forth as he prayed for the group he came with to come to know the love of God. They loved Jesus wholly and every single encounter with people, especially those far from God, was completely steeped in the desire that the whole world would come to know the joy and life of salvation.
That’s hard. People can be annoying and more than difficult. But the love of Christ compels us, as St. Paul said (2 Cor. 5:14). Our own bad days, drama, and selfishness can so easily cloud our vision that even simple opportunities for evangelization and hospitality can pass us by. But what do we miss when this happens? “And hospitality do not forget; for by this some, being not aware of it, have entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2).
But people don’t come knocking on the door looking for salvation right? Isn’t it more true that people come to our doors peddling it like Jehovah’s Witnesses?
One thing that really pushes evangelicals out into the world is the fact that with few exceptions no one comes to their door and knocks looking for mercy. You have to go out and get them! But for Catholics this is not the case.
Because of a deep history, culture, and the sheer draw of the sacraments (a thing evangelicals don’t have) people come to our doors for mercy! What an opportunity! Pregnant teenagers with a Catholic uncle come looking for baptism, fallen away couples think maybe they’ll want to be married by a priest, troubled college students want to ask about exorcisms, and I have listened to a wife speak of her apostate husband’s signal he might, in his old age, be ready to have his confession heard before he dies. Who do they call? The local parish! And I don’t have to look to my evangelical past to guess at what a response could and should be of such an occurrence.
“And rising up he came to his father. And when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and running to him fell upon his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
“I say to you, that even so there shall be joy in heaven upon one sinner that doth penance, more than upon ninety-nine just who need not penance” (Luke 15:7).
And who is it that receives most of these lost sheep? What is the first encounter they have with the Church? Sometimes we don’t have to go get that one lost sheep because they wander onto our doorstep or dial our number. Who is there waiting and what is that encounter like? The parish secretary!
Now, you may not know this, but secretaries are often the backbone of order in a parish. They might manage Fr. Pastor’s schedule, reserve rooms, and keep track of sacramental records. Often all of that is a stressful job that has a lot of people knocking on your door with demands and frustrations but few people saying please and thank you. I can speak from experience that the first encounter with a parish via the secretary is not always the enthusiasm of the prodigal son’s father.
When I decided to become a Catholic I began to encounter parish secretaries and it has continued now for about a decade, especially in my role with Fraternus, which puts me in contact with them multiple times a week. I have come to the conclusion that that desk near the front of the parish offices needs to be the seat of a highly skilled evangelist. We need to bring missionary zeal to that gatekeeper of God’s mercy.
We need to embrace, promote, and improve the apostolate of the parish secretary! Perhaps some sort of guild meets confraternity?
Secretaries should be trained and ready to see the person long before they see a problem or ask for paperwork. If an unwed mother comes to the door asking about baptism, rejoice with her at the birth of her child, thank her for bringing that new life to the world, and praise her that she wants God’s grace! She’s asking for the mercy of God after all – so give it! Do not begin with questions of the father, her past, or begin listing the litany of classes and paperwork she needs to get through. Oh, by all means do due diligence and get to those things, but first rejoice that God just brought someone in need of grace to your doorstep!
If someone wants to talk to a priest, make sure they know that father would be delighted to speak to them. Few things hurt children like being shooed away because daddy’s too busy for them. Often times people can be made to feel like a burden when they ask that a burden be lifted. I once had a close family member attempt to go to confession after years of being away from the Church and she was brought to tears by probing and chiding from parish secretaries (from multiple parishes). She called me in such inner turmoil I did not know how to console her, other than encouraging her to persevere and God will reward her. She did and He did, but people should face purgatory in Purgatory, not when they call the parish begging for mercy.
These are just a few ideas, but my point is that I think we too often overlook the simple improvements we can make to help bring God’s mercy to the world. Jesus told us to knock on the door and it will be opened. Hopefully when a sinner comes knocking the door can opened up by a holy, smiling, and apostolic secretary. Hey, there’s a name – The Apostolate of the Open Door. No, that’s not it… Any ideas?