Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
This weekend I chose to write to you about the ministry of hospitality, an important lay ministry in the Church. It is sometimes called the ministry of welcome or the usher ministry, and those who serve in it are known as “greeters” or “ushers”. If you attend Sunday Mass frequently, you will most likely recognize some of these ministers in our own church. Perhaps you already know one or two of them by name. They are not just volunteers who offer help at the liturgy. They are truly spiritual ambassadors for the local church. They serve as “first representatives” of the Lord Jesus Christ who invites people to His banquet and serves them with the feast of His Word and Sacrament.
Hospitality is a hallmark of the Christian way of life. As baptized faithful, we are called to “go and make disciples”. Our welcoming disposition plays a vital role in the apostolic mission of the Church, that of being a fisher’s net, bringing all men and women to the Lord. The usher is a person chosen to reflect the warmth and welcome of Christ Himself. Always conscious of Christ’s words: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” (Mt. 25:35), ushers are friendly people who are attracted to all age groups and nationalities. Their faith enables them to see Christ’s presence in individuals and in the gathered community of believers.
Ushers carry a dignity about themselves even when performing hidden and often unsung tasks. As the first faces that people see when they come to church, ushers have the unique opportunity to represent the rest of the congregation in offering hospitality. People’s impression of a parish is significantly shaped by the presence or absence of a welcoming atmosphere. Offering a smile and a word of welcome can have a profound impact on people as they arrive, especially if they are visitors to the parish. Making them feel at home is one way in which ushers help build up the Church, as hospitality is a vital element in creating a sense of community and family. A person who feels welcomed and valued is much more likely to enter wholeheartedly into the celebration of the liturgy and eagerly want to return to be an active part of that community. Ushers thus assist in bringing together the Church, sharing in the work of God who “gathers a people to Himself.” (Is. 25:6-9).
The ministry of ushers is the oldest lay ministry in the Church. The ushers of today have descended from a long line of people of God who have gone before them. During the time of Christ, the doorkeepers of the temple numbered in the hundreds and were the forerunners of today’s ushers. The more immediate predecessor of today’s usher can be found in the clerical order of porter, instituted in the third century A.D. During those times, it was the duty of the porters, or ushers, to guard the door of the church against any intruders who might disturb the service. The porter duties were so important that they came to be included in the rite of ordination, where they were specified as “to ring the bells, open the church and sacristy, and open the book for the preacher.” In 1972, Pope Paul VI abolished the order of porter and this important task was given over to the laity. While today’s ushers don’t ring the bells or open the church, their primary duties include greeting and welcoming parishioners as they enter the church, helping parishioners find seats, taking up the collection of the faithful’s offerings, and wishing everyone a good day at the conclusion of the Eucharistic celebration. In other words, these ministers act as hosts to warmly welcome the people of God to their Father’s house.
As a priest, I am always at ease when I know that there is a good group of ushers at Sunday Mass. Just as the ministers at the altar play an important role in the smooth flow of our liturgical prayer, so too do our ushers in making sure that nothing distracts from Christ and His welcoming love which the liturgy is intended to convey. Being an usher holds a special pride of place in the celebration of the Church’s great rituals, ministering similarly as priests do to the God we are called to see in the face of our neighbors.
In our Gospel this Sunday, Jesus instructs us: “Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival.” (Lk 12:32-48). Jesus, our master, who comes to us in the face of all those we come to meet, calls us “blessed” for waiting to welcome Him home whenever He arrives.
My brothers and sisters, I hope that I have given you a deeper appreciation of the beauty of the ministry of hospitality in the Church, a service rooted in Christ’s mission and our own vocation as disciples. I invite you to consider taking part in this ministry by volunteering to be an usher in our parish. You can speak to any priest about your interest or desire to learn more. The usher ministry is open to all – women and men, young and the young at heart.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Msgr. Cuong M. Pham