How an Encounter Taught Me to Be Welcoming at Mass

This encounter shed light on a common reason why young people leave the Catholic Church.
I travel a lot, flying over 100,000 miles a year to various youth, young adult, and catechetical events throughout the year, speaking to thousands of people. It’s a huge honor to do so, but it’s also very exhausting. So, when I find myself in airports, either going to or heading home from an event, I like to be very quiet and on my own. I am the person that walks through an airport with noise-canceling headphones on. I am the person whose head is in a book on the plane. If I could wear a t-shirt that said “Don’t talk to me” while I travel, I would.

So, imagine my shock and surprise when one of the most profound conversations of my life happened at an airport while heading home after a youth conference in Minnesota.

I went to the Chili’s in the A terminal to buy a salad for dinner, before heading to my gate. While I stood in line, I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket to check my email. As I did, the crucifix of my rosary (which is usually in my pocket) came out slightly, and the man standing next to me must’ve seen it.

“Oh, are you Catholic?” he asked.

I looked over, realizing he was talking to me. “Yes. Very,” I said, and then quickly went back to staring at my phone.

“I used to be Catholic,” he continued. And he proceeded to explain to me how he was Catholic, loved stained glass windows, and enjoyed going to Mass.

“I stopped going,” he then said. “I moved, and went to a new parish, and just didn’t feel like I fit.”

Keep in mind: at this point, the only things I’ve said to this guy are “yes” and “very,” and he’s pouring out his heart while standing in line at an airport Chili’s.

He kept going. “You know, no one there even asked me my name. Not once. It’s like nobody wanted me there.”

“Well,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Joe,” he said.

“Well, Joe, I’m Katie. And I hope you come back to Church. I want you there. And I hope you come back.”

He turned away, and our conversation ended. Then they called his name to grab his food, and he stepped forward.

As he turned back around, he looked at me and said, “I know it’s a silly reason to stop going to church because nobody asked me my name, but isn’t that the first thing Jesus would want us to know about each other?”

That encounter with Joe profoundly moved me. Not because anything earth-shatteringly theological was shared, or because he told me anything I didn’t already know, but simply because he spoke up. He was unafraid to name why he left the Church, and in doing so, he showed a brokenness that broke my heart.

He felt alone in the house of God, the one place where no one should ever feel unwelcome, unwanted, or unnoticed. He felt unseen by a Church whose entire purpose is to help us see Jesus, oftentimes in the faces of those we see around us. He felt unimportant, ignored, and cast aside by people who didn’t acknowledge his presence, notice when he was there, or notice when he left.

I’m sure the people at the parish Joe went to were well-meaning, kind individuals who didn’t maliciously ignore him or purposefully not ask him his name, and I hope that if he had gone up to one of them and introduced himself, he would’ve been met with warmth and welcome. But, the new guy at the Church shouldn’t, on his own, have to seek out community. The people who have always been there — who themselves were once new to that Church parish — should be the ones to seek out the lost, welcome the stranger, and make them feel at home.

We lost Joe. He stopped going to Sunday Mass. He left the Church. Another person decided it was more worthwhile for him to find another faith community or just go to Sunday brunch with bottomless mimosas than to show up for Mass and sit in a pew surrounded by people who didn’t care that he was there.

The Joe I met in an airport Chili’s line, and his story, is the same Joe with the same story of so many other young adults around the country who have felt alone, isolated, and unseen in Church parishes, dioceses, and communities for years. It’s not that the Eucharist hasn’t won them over. It’s not that they haven’t been touched by Jesus Christ and moved to deep faith. It’s that they didn’t stay in the building long enough to have that encounter because they weren’t greeted with a warm welcome and a joyful community.

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The U.S. bishops invited me to attend the Vatican’s pre-synod gathering of young people in March, which was a meeting to prepare for the Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment currently happening in Rome. When I arrived, I walked into a room of 300 young adults, most of whom were faithful men and women who loved the Church, who served the Church, and who have met “Joes” in their own countries, hometowns, and airport Chili’s. And we were there to speak openly and honestly to one another and the Church’s leaders about how we can win those Joes back — how we can articulate the faith, how we can help them see the necessity of a relationship with Christ, and how we can make them feel welcome.

The week we spent together in Rome, while at times tedious because of the long hours in small group discussions, was a snapshot of what the Church can be for young adults: a place of community and fellowship, worship and prayer, formation, dialogue, and growth.

Every day we prayed at Mass, a different bishop brought us the Eucharist each morning.

Every day we shared meals, passing pasta and wine as if we’d known each other for years, laughing together as we told stories, listening to one another as we debated certain points of our document, and learning from one another about the varied experiences of Church from around the world. I made friends from Egypt, Latvia, Australia, England, New Zealand, Canada, and China whom I keep in touch with to this day. A half a year later, and a half a world away, and we still talk, we still share, and we still share faith.

Every day we ventured into the city, exploring Rome as if it was a home we’d always known.

And every day, as we delved further and further into the reality that we were writing a letter to the bishops to help them understand what young people need and want from our Church, we realized that we were experiencing precisely what young people need, in real time: a community that welcomes us, a Church that listens to us, and a faith that is accessible, understandable, and can be joyfully lived together as we share it with the world.

As the Synod officially happens in Rome this month, I hope and pray that each day for the bishops and auditors is half as fun and fruitful as our days at the pre-synod gathering, though I imagine 300 bishops in a room is certainly not the same 300 young adults. But I hope they come to experience the same community, the same openness and joy, the same experience of being unafraid to share honestly, listen earnestly, and grow bit by bit to understand another perspective. The whole point of a synod is to “walk together” — to journey through a topic, expand one’s perspective, and open one’s mind to the 10,000-foot view, the big picture. The pre-synod gathering was a snapshot of how to do that: how to sit together, work together, pray together, and learn together. The Synod, I hope, is the same.

I hope and pray the discussions and conversations at the Synod touch on the importance of making the Church a home — a place of welcome, understanding, and formation; a place that feels warm and inviting, not cold and rigid. The Church should be the place young adults turn to in times of trouble and distress. The Church should be the place young adults run to when ready to celebrate and rejoice. But young adults won’t do that if they feel unwelcome, instantly judged, or rejected, and the Church cannot be that place if they do not throw open the doors and invite even the most distant, sinful, unknown young adult in.

Ultimately, I hope and pray the Synod remembers the “Joes” of the world who have shown up, and then have shown themselves to the door because nobody cared they were there. I hope and pray they articulate in honest, practical, real ways how to teach the faith to a generation inundated by noise, overcome by relativism, and overwhelmed by ever-changing answers to what matters most.

And, ultimately, I hope and pray that they experience at the Synod what we did at the pre-synod gathering: community that is life-giving, life-changing, and can bear great fruit.

Grotto graphic about why young people leave the Catholic Church: :"Young people need...a community that welcomes us, a Church that listens to us, and a faith that is accessible, understandable, and can be joyfully lived together as we share it with the world."

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