Opportunity to preach, pray with once-a-year Massgoers has priests ready to 'make sure people know Jesus'

ROYAL OAK — It’s one of the biggest days of the year for attending Mass.

The parking lot will be full, the pews will be crowded, and there will probably be some unfamiliar faces in the congregation.

Christmas is an opportunity for pastors to preach the Gospel message to an audience that’s a little different than usual. From the curious, the seeking, and the once- or twice-a-year Mass-attending Catholics, it's a rare chance to make an impact on those who might not otherwise find themselves in church.

This year, parishes across the Archdiocese of Detroit are stepping up to the challenge.

During a Parish Day of Renewal on Nov. 16, Fr. Stephen Pullis, director of the archdiocese's Department of Evangelization, Catechesis and Schools, introduced pastors and parish staff to the idea of a “radically mission-oriented Christmas.” 

Since then, pastors and their staffs have been discussing way to make this Christmas a day of encounter for those who walk through the church’s doors.

“We are encouraging those who are really on fire for our faith, who went through our parish Alpha program, to use Christmas as an opportunity to talk about their faith,” said Fr. Ray Lewandowski, pastor of St. Roch Parish in Flat Rock.

Fr. Lewandowski said the parish is using resources provided by the Archdiocese of Detroit, including copies of Matthew Kelly’s “The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity” to give to the congregation on Christmas.

The parish is also preparing regular, every-week Mass-goers to ready themselves for people to visit St. Roch on Dec. 24 and 25, and to put the parish’s best foot forward in welcoming people.

“In the past, we’ve always had the doors open, but maybe we need to open the doors wider,” Fr. Lewandowski said. “This isn’t a recruitment plan at all; we’re just here to make people aware Jesus is happiness and peace. If someone becomes involved in organized religion and the Church, great. But our first responsibility is to make sure people know Jesus.”

Getting people to know Jesus means inviting those who come to Christmas Mass to Mass on Sunday, Dec. 30, when Fr. Lewandowski and St. Roch are planning on asking people who have gone through the Alpha program to give a witness on how Jesus has shaped their lives.

“We’re going to be playing videos in regards to Alpha, to invite folks to come and learn what it is all about,” Fr. Lewandowski said. “We’ll have a special insert in the bulletin on Christmas for the people fulfilling their Christmas obligation. We’re trying to show them love, an unconditional love that Jesus in the Eucharist provides. We want to show visitors what it is like for people each week to receive the Eucharist.”

Prayer cards asking parishioners to pray for Christmas visitors are seen on a table during a Holy Hour at St. Mary Parish in Royal Oak.

Besides the preparations to make Christmas more welcoming for visitors, many pastors have asked their parishes to pray for those who will be visiting the church.

“In Advent, we’ve been praying at all the Sunday Masses for those who don’t always come to Mass, but will come on Christmas,” said Fr. Paul Snyder, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Royal Oak. “We had a Eucharistic Holy Hour with praise and worship music, praying for everyone to receive Jesus, but also for everyone else who wants to come to Christ.”

Fr. Snyder said St. Mary has printed worship aids for Christmas Masses so people who don’t regularly come to Mass won’t be lost during the liturgy.

“At the Christmas Mass, we kneel during a certain point in the creed for the one time of the year, so a worship aid helps everyone to participate,” Fr. Snyder said. “It gives visitors something to follow so they might not feel isolated or the only ones who don’t know the words.”

Fr. Snyder is asking parishioners to have patience with a more crowded parking lot and to be willing to give up their usual pew for a family that doesn’t often attend Mass. After all, he says, this Christmas might be the Christmas God lights their hearts on fire for the Lord.

“Even if you are someone who goes to Mass to make someone else happy, you are here, and God’s grace works like that. He is happy you are here,” Fr. Snyder said. “God’s grace is working, no matter what the reason is, when we encounter Christ in the Eucharist. 

“We will make sure the church is beautiful, our music is at its best, really acknowledging that this is a moment of God’s grace which can overwhelm and change us,” Fr. Snyder said. “That is what we are praying for ahead of time, that this Christmas might be the Christmas someone who may only come to Mass twice a year will hear God’s voice and come back next Sunday.”

Fr. Paul Snyder and worshippers at St. Mary Parish in Royal Oak adore the Blessed Sacrament during an evening Holy Hour on Dec. 17 to prepare the parish to welcome visitors to the church this Christmas.

Beyond the practical steps of making sure the parking lot is clear of snow and visitors have a worship aid to follow along, pastors are also asked to deliver a "kerygmatic" homily that encapsulates the true meaning of Christmas: That God, through his son, Jesus Christ, came into this world to abolish sin and death.

“Rather than preaching about Christmas, and then the kerygma, the focus is to teach about the kerygma and then focus on Christ,” said Fr. David Burgard, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Monroe. “Because of everything that comes from the kerygma, we have the Incarnation. That is why we are here; that is what this is all about. We are inviting people to reflect on this, and how we are always here for them.”

Fr. Burgard is conscious of the fact that there will be people hearing his homily who don't normally go to Mass.

“(In preparing a Christmas homily,) you want to keep in mind the people who aren’t normally here, putting yourself in their situation and asking what they need to hear. They need to hear the basics, the kerygma,” Fr. Burgard said. “Then you focus on Christ, and what it means to have Christ in your life.”

Fr. Burgard said whether people who visit this Christmas receive a conversion from God is ultimately in God’s hands, but he wants St. Mary Parish to be a place where that conversion can happen.

“When we question how you measure success for a Christmas Mass, you start to question the fruit of our work,” Fr. Burgard said. “We need to remember that this is God’s work, and that’s not immediately measurable from a worldly perspective. This is our parish’s opportunity to present Christ to an engaged audience, an audience who wants to — who needs to — hear Christ and the message he has. That is what makes an impact for people.”