Welcoming People Home: A Focus on Hospitality

Parishioners entering Our Mother of Sorrows (Web)

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” 

Matthew 25:35 NIV

Jacqueline Marie | Feb.9, 2023

When Father Mark Begly started as the Pastor at Our Mother of Sorrows in Pennsylvania, USA, he had “the most unwelcoming experience for the first 6 months.” He remembers, “I just found it to be this really cold place.”  

Yet, 12 years later this church is now known for their hospitality. Their warmth and welcome are what draws people to join their parish community.   

In 2014, Father Mark went to a conference with Sherry Weddell where she quoted a stat: in the USA about 6% of Catholics are Biblebelieving Christians. He knew she was right, and said to his team “we must do something.” In response they started running the Alpha course. The first course had 40 people attend, then 150, then 150 again and the trend continued “The Alpha course became the pipeline to changespeaking about Jesus and having a personal relationship with him was a radical change for many people in the parish.  

What started as a focus on evangelization led to a culture change in the parish. Father Mark relates, hospitality changed drastically. Father James Mallon also draws this line from running Alpha to creating a culture of hospitality in a parish: “at the heart of Alpha, the dynamic of what Alpha is, is hospitality…a hospitality that reflects the ministry of Jesus.” 

"I am completely convinced that what people desire more than anything, is to belong, and to feel welcomed, and to be accepted, and to be embraced as they are.”

Julie Sheehan, the Pastoral Administrator and Coordinator of Small Groups explains the logistical changes that accompanied the culture change. “We no longer have ushers,” instead they switched from a couple people manning their posts to an attitude of complete hospitality. We have people out on the curbs, in the parking lot with umbrellas, helping some of the elderly into the churcheach step of the way welcoming people in. Hospitality was changed from a perfunctory doorman to an opportunity for a whole team to welcome people into the life of the parish. It was “a major, major rehaul of what we did before,” with the goal to “open the doors and welcome everyone. 

Father Mark explains, “I am completely convinced that what people desire more than anything is to belong, and to feel welcomed and to be accepted, and to be embraced as they are… And I think the message of Jesus, the great revolutionary message of Jesus, in many ways, is that you do belong, and that you are accepted that you are welcome.” 

Father Mark welcoming a family at Our Mother of Sorrows (web)

But changing the culture of the parish was not simple; Father Mark states “to really be a welcoming presence is not an easy task.” Some people saw even little changes, like a name tag Sunday, as an attack, grumbling, “I don’t care who sits behind me – who sits beside me.”

“I’m more out of my comfort zone with all this stuff than I’ve ever been, and I’ve been at this for 38 years…Part of the discomfort was it might fail, all the way through I never knew if I was right or wrong.” He continues, “I think priests are taught to care about the institution and we’re not really taught to place Jesus at the center, and I think we are absolutely afraid to do it…I talk to other priests about this kind of thing, and they are terrified.”

Through coaching with DR and the examples of people like Cardinal Cantalamessa and Sherry Weddell, he found encouragement. “It is easy to try to run an institution, it’s hard to be an advocate of evangelization and to make your parish culture about all of that…I think the very foundation is personal intimacy with Jesus Christ and that that is the very core effort you must teach with every fiber of your being.”

Father Mark and the leadership team pushed through the resistance. Every Mass now opens with an invitation to welcome each other. Ultimately, the shift in hospitality, Father Mark says, “shows me again, it is their deepest desire” to belong.

“Our culture is so spiritually bankrupt. Where else would [people] go to belong? Where else do they go to be welcomed, where else do they go to be accepted…There is no place outside of Jesus, where the message is: ‘My love for you is a complete total gift’.”

“Evangelization is the key to all this, Jesus is the key…it is a conversion experience that happens to you, and priests can have conversion experiences too.”

My family and I were searching for a new spiritual home. From the first moment we turned onto Tioga St., we immediately sensed something was different. People and cars were everywhere. Yet, in the midst of all the commotion was a man smiling and waving us into a parking spot. We were welcomed and walked to the front doors, our children were greeted with enthusiasm, and moments later we found ourselves seated, welcomed, with worship aids in our hands (and somehow chocolate in our boys’ hands!). Music was playing, and before the Mass even began, we knew we were home.” 

-DR Coach Ryan Coyne