Last week I visited St. Fabian Parish in Farmington Hills, MI (part of the Archdiocese of Detroit) for 9:15 am Sunday Mass, coincidentally, on the optional memorial of St. Fabian, Pope and Martyr.
With over 2000 families, St. Fabian is a big parish (average parish size in the U.S. is 1100-1200 families)–and the facilities certainly speak to this. School recreation fields, a large parking lot, and school/parish building attached to the sanctuary make the parish easy to find. With the much needed large parking area, it would be nice to have at least some designated visitor parking spots with a sign pointing towards the entry to the sanctuary. Reserving just a few visitor spots sends the clear message, yes–you are welcome here and we’re ready to receive you!
Entering the narthex was a very positive experience. The ushers were professional, easily identified with crisp looking name tags, and hospitable–making immediate eye-contact and offering a smile and “hello.” Positive energy before a morning service at any church is a great thing! If the ushers are happy to be present and serving the community, shouldn’t I be pleased to be here as well?
Preparing for Mass in the Pews
The sanctuary at St. Fabian is designed in a slightly circular fashion, resulting in generally good visibility. My husband commented on how the natural lighting made what could have been a darker/dim space (due to low ceilings) feel open and comfortable for prayer and worship.
St. Fabian’s made excellent use of a pre-Mass commentator. Before the start of Mass, a commentator rose to greet the congregation, announce the names of the presiding priest, lector, and possibly (I can’t quite remember) extraordinary ministers of holy communion (EMHC). I rarely experience this before Mass, and to be honest, it felt warm. I didn’t know the lector, but I knew her name–instantly the parish seemed just a little bit smaller to me as a visitor. The commentator reminded us that given the flu season, it’s okay to not shake hands during the Kiss of Peace or drink from the cup. She concluded by encouraging us to turn and welcome each other before Mass began.
St. Fabian’s used the commentator well, however this could have been even more visitor-friendly by adding information of specific relevance to those who might not be regular Mass-attenders. For example, since there were no cards or guides to the Order of Mass in the pews, it would have been nice to be informed that one could pray along with the printed words by “turning to pg. x in the hymnal” (this parish had newer hardcover hymnals with the Roman Missal, Third Edition updates). This way the prayers of the Mass would not seem like an awkward blur to me, if I’d never experienced liturgical worship before, or was returning to Mass after a long-period of absence. We need to do all we can to help those who are unfamiliar participate as fully and reverently as possible in Mass.
Two points of this celebration of Mass gave me pause to consider potential impacts for evangelization. First, the homily. The priest’s homily focused on the day’s Gospel reading featuring the first sign at the wedding of Cana. The preacher wove apologetics into his homily, stating to the congregation (and demonstrating through his interpretation of the Scripture) that our Catholic faith does not include worshipping Mary, but instead turning to her as model of one who points to Jesus, and encourages others to “do whatever he tells you.” Although a Eucharistic homily is not primarily apologetic in nature, given the call to re-evangelize those who may have been baptized but not formed into mature believers, the priest’s preaching was appropriate and easy to comprehend–I could envision parishioners being able to use this teaching to share their Catholic faith with others who might skeptically question, “but don’t you worship Mary?!?”
A second moment that stood out was the dismissal of candidates and catechumen participating in the RCIA (unfortunately the distinction between candidates and catechumen was blurred–not helpful for a visitor who may already be baptized and ready to be received into full communion sooner). This seemed like a missed opportunity to be visitor-friendly and extend an offering to any seekers/inquirers present in the pews. The priest led the congregation in offering a blessing, then dismissed the small group. While he did mention that this dismissal was in preparation for the day they “join us at the table,” this would have been a ready-made moment to invite anyone present to join the group and inquire further, or at least ask the question, “might God be calling you to baptism? or to join in full communion in sharing His Body and Blood?”.
St. Fabian’s used the commentator again to give the announcements at the end of Mass. Having one person designated in this role created a nicely planned feel. As visitor I knew that when this woman spoke, I was going to receive information (rather than prayer, Scripture, song, etc. during Mass). One of her announcements involved promoting the parish’s upcoming 3-4 day mission with faith formation for all ages and encouraging people to invite friends/family. Always good to see a parish reminding its people to go out and be evangelizers! However, still no clues for me as a visitor. If I’d experienced an encounter with Christ anew in this celebration–what was I to do? Where could I find more information about other events? Did anyone want to talk to me? The fact that St. Fabian’s uses a commentator creates an appropriate space for a simple gesture of outreach, for example, “We would like to thank any visitors in attendance this morning. Please feel free to stop by our information booth in the narthex to pick up a visitor packet and meet some members of our parish” (or something similar).
Find out more about this parish: http://www.stfabian.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.