All Are Welcome*

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live, a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive. Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace; here the love of Christ shall end divisions. All are welcome, all are welcome,all are welcome in this place.

And thus begins the popular tune by Marty Haugen, “All Are Welcome.” Sounds pretty benign, even warm and comforting doesn’t it? Despite its rather positive themes, however, I can’t think of any song in the Christian songbook that causes as much debate and division, anger and angst, as “All Are Welcome.” The interpretations of the song are many.

For some, the song has become an anthem to open doors and hospitality, admirable virtues that should characterize every Christian community.

Some take its inclusive theme to an extreme and abuse the well-meaning song as a protest against traditional Christian values.

For most Catholics, who find themselves in the neutral zone of the liturgical wars, the song is simply a pleasant way of beginning the Mass and setting a positive tone for the gathering of the community.

Some critics, however, find the song to be rather misleading, heretical even, convinced that it betrays the nature of the Church, minimizes her teachings, and leads to a watered down expression of the faith marked by indifferentism and syncretism.

Now, personally, I don’t have a problem with “All Are Welcome.” I find its lyrics and themes, properly understood, to be acceptable, and the music itself eminently singable. It easily becomes an earworm, defined as “a catchy song or tune that runs continually through a person’s mind.” (I’m humming it as I write!)

But, as I say, its lyrics and themes have to be properly understood. That’s why I placed a large asterisk (*) with the title of this column. Let me suggest, then, some things I think “All Are Welcome” should mean and should not mean.

When we, as Catholics, say “all are welcome” it should point to the universal nature of the Church as established by Christ. Isn’t that what “catholic” means – universal, all inclusive? After all it was Jesus who said that “people will come from the east and the west, and from the north and the south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God.” (Lk 13:29)

When we say “all are welcome” it can legitimately reflect an enthusiastic spirit of evangelization in the Church as we reach out to others to share the “Joy of the Gospel.” As a Catholic community our membership is not closed; neither are our doors. We should be inviting others, even recruiting others, to be part of our Church.

When we say “all are welcome” it’s a reminder that the educational and social services of the Catholic Church are available for all, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. In providing heating assistance, inviting guests to our homeless shelter, settling refugee families, or opening the doors to food pantries and soup kitchens, we never ask for a baptism certificate or budget envelopes.

In fact, the words “all are welcome” express some of the finest instincts and theological premises of the Catholic Church.

On the other hand, the well-meaning words can be misinterpreted and abused too.

When we say “all are welcome” it does not mean that someone can join our faith community without professing the faith we share; without accepting our fundamental tenets and teachings; without agreeing to support the mission of the Church – personally, spiritually and, yes, financially too.

When we say “all are welcome” it does not mean that someone is entitled to work for the Church or fill a ministerial position while being publicly involved in an immoral relationship or activity that contradicts the fundamental principles and well-known teachings of the Church on matters of faith and morals.

When we say “all are welcome” it does not indicate that everyone is invited to march up in the Communion line to receive Holy Communion without being properly disposed. In practice that requires those who receive Holy Communion to be a member of the Church, be free of mortal sin, and intend to receive the Holy Eucharist with proper decorum, respect and reverence.

The point is that indeed, “all are welcome” to become part of our Catholic community and share in our services, programs and worship. But those words do not mean that we have no community identity – that we jettison all of our expectations, doctrines and disciplines simply to create an idyllic Mister-Rogers-like little neighborhood filled with tinkling pianos, butterflies and rainbows.

The hard truth is, that while all are welcome, not everyone is suited for the Catholic community. If they cannot freely accept the faith and teachings of the Church, if their conscience or lifestyle leads them elsewhere, so be it. We will wish them well and pray that God accompanies them in their journey of faith.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, whose writing and speaking I admire, put it this way: “We should never be afraid of a smaller, lighter Church if her members are also more faithful, more zealous, more missionary and more committed to holiness. Losing people who are members of the Church in name only is an imaginary loss. In fact, it may be more honest for those who leave and healthier for those who stay.”

So yes, indeed, all are welcome. Go ahead, sing the song with faith and fervor. But, please, don’t forget the asterisk (*).