Visiting any parish for a weekday Mass is a great opportunity to experience some of the smaller touches that can make a parish community feel open and welcoming to a visitor or spiritual seeker. Last month I visited Our Lady of the Visitation Parish in Paramus, New Jersey (part of the Archdiocese of Newark) for morning Mass on Thursday of the 3rd Week of Advent.
I was able to quickly find this parish though a Google search and easily located the parish website to find out when weekday Mass was celebrated. The website’s navigation included updated weekday Mass times (always a good sign!) and directions, both narrative and linked to an online map. Overall, however, the website had a dated look, with frame sizes that might be difficult to read on a tablet or smartphone. The non-flash version of the site was slightly better in this area.
The parish was easy to find from the street and the facilities looked well-maintained, frequently utilized, and very inviting, with plenty of parking. The main front door of the church is not directly adjacent to the parking lot, so a sign directing visitors from the parking lot to the correct entrance point could be helpful. The small narthex/lobby area had some fliers and brochures for parishioners and practicing Catholics, but nothing clearly marked for visitors. While greeters, ushers, and bulletin passers can often serve as a visitor/seeker point of contact at weekend Masses, a clearly marked display or brochure-rack in a main entrance area is essential for any evangelizing Catholic parish as it is likely to be the only place for a visitor or seeker to get more information about the Catholic faith, parish community, or what to expect at liturgy.
Environment for Mass
The sanctuary at Our Lady of the Visitation was a gentle (not jarring) light rose color and decorated with midnight-purple accents for Advent. The simplicity and uncluttered look created a prayerful environment that was relaxing. The pews in the front half of the sanctuary are arranged in a slanted/curved format, while the pews in the back half are in traditional parallel rows. A baptismal font with reverently displayed chrism and oil stands between the two sections. We had the delight of witnessing a “school Mass,” and middle school students were all seated in the front section, while others in attendance remained in the back pews as we did.
The pews did not contain any card to guide visitors through the liturgy, nor was there any posted reference to pages in the hymnal to follow along with the order of service. This, combined with the lack of any visitor materials in the lobby, left me puzzled as to to how any visitor or seeker–maybe a Catholic returning to Mass after a long absence, a non-denominational Christian trying out Mass for the first time, or just an unaffiliated person interested in God–could easily participate or follow along with the liturgy without feeling lost! There are few things more isolating that being in a liturgical service and having the sneaking feeling that everyone around you “knows what they’re doing” and you are sticking out like a sore thumb for “not knowing what to say.” This is an easy fix for the parish–printed cards with an order of service or a simple index card with page number references to follow along in the hymnal.
The evangelization highlight of this celebration of Mass came from the obvious warmth and Christian experienced conveyed by the presider, Fr. Jose Montes de Oca. Fr. Jose’s homily took the day’s Gospel reading and applied it in tangible examples to the congregation, especially the middle school students who made up over half of those in attendance. He built his sermon around the importance of each of our listening to God in our lives. Really listening. Fr. Jose highlighted that despite our popular images of the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary, Luke’s Gospel says nothing about Mary seeing Gabriel. But, she did hear him. Even though we (most likely) do not see God (or angels) in physical form making announcements to us, God is speaking to us. Especially relevant for the middle school students, he applied this to decisions of conscience they might face on a regular basis, and told a story of how at times in his life, he knew he wasn’t listening to God in the choices he made. The homily was a good fit for the liturgical season and needs of the visible congregation, and for any visitor or spiritual seeker, proclaimed the crucial truth that God seeks us individually, that God wants to speak to us, if we open to listening.
Find out more about this parish: http://www.olvcommunity.org/
Background on the “Mystery Visitor” Series — As a Catholic who has moved around quite a bit in the U.S. and travelled often in the past for business, I’ve seen the incredible amount of variety present in churches throughout this country. Although I don’t travel as much anymore, when I do visit churches I try to place myself (as best as able) in the role of a true visitor–a seeker, maybe someone returning to the Catholic Church, or someone looking for a congregation for the first time. I focus mostly on Catholic parishes, but will also include other Christian churches I happen to visit through travels, family, and friends in this series. The purpose of “Mystery Visitor” write-ups is intended to be entirely constructive–trying to see what our “ordinary” routines might look like to an outsider and pondering how first impressions of a parish can be more “evangelization-friendly.” Although Mass is not primarily intended to be a specific event of the initial proclamation of “evangelization,” it is a cultural reality that many visitors and seekers will first come to a worship service to “feel out” a new community. Because of this practical reality, I consider evangelization within the context of worship to be a necessary area of reflection.