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Getting past the Church’s gatekeepers. Who’s minding the store?

Open Door 01

My June Life Lines column. It must have struck a chord because I am receiving tons of private emails from total strangers who all have experienced this in one way or another. A rare time when I wish people couldn’t relate to my column. Here you go:

Almost 25 years ago, a woman in my family—lifelong Catholic, former folk group singer, fixture at her home parish—walked into a new church in her new town with her boyfriend. They wanted to get married and, although he wasn’t Catholic, her boyfriend had been married before. So they were interested in seeking information about annulment. Simple enough, right? At least at that early stage.

The parish secretary informed them curtly that they could enroll in the parish and give to the envelope system for three months. Then someone would be willing to talk to them about annulment. My relative walked out of that local church, out of the universal Church, and never looked back. And, quite frankly, I can’t blame her.

Back then I had hoped this was an isolated incident, a bad day in the life of a parish secretary, but since then I have heard from many people who have experienced similar variations on the same theme. I think of the friend whose infant son needed private baptism immediately because of a life-threatening condition and was told—by the parish secretary, not a priest— that baptisms are done only on the first and third Sundays of each month at regular Mass, no exceptions. She had to find another church, and fast.

Again and again adult Catholics—some on the verge of leaving the faith, others on the verge of returning—gingerly try to put their toes over the threshold of a parish, only to get a door slammed in their face. I had assumed this was an American phenomenon, a factor of our over-stressed lives, but just recently Pope Francis used his daily homily to address exactly this issue. Apparently it’s a worldwide problem.

Here’s what the pope said:

 “Think of the good Christians, with good will, we think about the parish secretary… ‘Good evening, good morning, the two of us—boyfriend and girlfriend—we want to get married.’ And instead of saying, ‘That’s great!’ They say, ‘Oh, well, have a seat. If you want the Mass, it costs a lot…’ This, instead of receiving a good welcome –‘It is a good thing to get married!’ But instead they get this response: ‘Do you have the certificate of baptism, all right…’ And they find a closed door. When this Christian and that Christian has the ability to open a door, thanking God for this fact of a new marriage…We are many times controllers of faith, instead of becoming facilitators of the faith of the people.”

This pope knows exactly what we need to hear. I only hope everyone is listening. And by “everyone” I don’t mean just the people in the pews. I mean the people who have the power to make decisions that will change stories like this one from the pope’s homily:

“Think about a single mother who goes to church, in the parish and to the secretary she says: ‘I want my child baptized.’ And then this Christian says: ‘No, you cannot because you’re not married!’ But look, this girl who had the courage to carry her pregnancy and not to return her son to the sender, what is it? A closed door! This is not zeal! It is far from the Lord!”

Experiences like these—all too frequent and all too real—drive a wedge between the People of God and the Church, all on the whim of the person at the front desk, all in the name of the letter of the law over the heart of the law.

“Knock, and the door will be opened to you,” Jesus said. I think he meant any time, not “when your papers are in order” or “on the first Sunday of the month.”

The people are hungry for God. Pope Francis knows this. The people know this. Not sure how so many others in between missed the memo.

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  1. Oh, thank you so much for this. I am reminded of a friend of mine, who had relocated to a new state and had a newborn whom she was hoping to have baptized in the Church. My friend called the local cathedral and said that she was new in town and would like to have her baby baptized. “Do you give to the parish?” asked the parish secretary. There was no “Congratulations on your baby!” or “Welcome to town!”, only a question about whether or not the family contributed to the parish. It’s astonishing, and depressing. I’m so grateful to Pope Francis for addressing this issue.

    June 18, 2013
  2. As the parish secretary, who considers it a privilege to welcome all as Christ, I am deeply saddened and horrified to hear this… yet, I am not completely surprised.

    My stomach actually churns at moments like these, and my eyes get teary, even after nearly five years of the rich honor of answering the phone and the door at the parish. Pope Francis’ words, which I check and read voraciously, live in my heart.

    And may God forgive me any time I was anything other than full of welcome and the gifts of God’s hospitality.

    Having said that, what the parish secretary often says is at the behest of the priest or the parish… *sigh* I am so grateful to not have to be in that position.

    June 19, 2013
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      Well, I used to answer phones at my parish back in college. Although I didn’t have the title of secretary, I was the first person people talked to when they came in on weekends. I can only hope I was kind enough way back when. I know lots of parish secretaries who are wonderful, and I can only imagine how welcoming it would be to walk into your parish and be greeted by you, Fran! Can we clone you? :-)

      June 19, 2013
    • Laura Lewandowski #

      Although you might have to say certain things at the behest of the priest, there is a kind way to deliver what a person might not wish to hear, one that affirms the humanity of the hearer. I think then the person might not be tempted so much to slam the door on the way out.

      June 19, 2013
  3. Chris Vogelsang #

    This experience happened to me and my husband (who was Catholic) when we went to see the parish priest about me becoming Catholic. The priests made some comment in a disparaging way that I was only seeking to become Catholic because I wanted to get married in the church. We did not feel welcome; we went to the Lutheran church down the street and were welcomed there.

    When our daughter was born, she was baptized Catholic because my husband’s name was still on their rolls. She later started classes there and accomplished her first communion. She loved her first year (female) teacher and was very dedicated to attending. But in the second year, the teacher was a man who was more about the rules. He scolded her publicly for missing a class due to a sports event. She was so humiliated, she never went back.

    25 years later when the Catholic church started the “Welcome Home” emphasis, I received a form letter that was sent to me because “our records indicate that at some time you sought to become a Catholic.” The essence was, now they were interested in talking to me.

    On the positive side, I was invited to the Spirituality Center at a local Catholic Motherhouse, by a friend who was attending a book group there. I joined the group, felt very welcomed, and attended groups and retreats there for years.

    June 19, 2013
  4. Trish Ranney #

    Until I became a parisoner with the Immaculate Conception, I found myself repeatedly receiving subtle messages that I was particularly welcome in the Church after having been away from it since I was around 12 years old — more than 40 years ago. Every time I tried to come back, there was always something negative that happened that indiated to me that I was one lost sheep who could just continue wandering without a home. Fran, your kind words, which began with a simple response to an e-mail of mine, was the first VERY positive I had received. And it was sincere. The difference between you (and Father Jerry) from so many of the others in the Church that I had encountered over the years was that you weren’t “in this” because it’s just a job that you do or beccause it felt right for you — without thinking about your impact on the people with whom you would interact every day.
    I always try to remember that everybody has a bad day, but there are some jobs when a person’s bad day can have a life-altering impact on someone else. And when someone is going to you, asking for your help, there is no worse response than one that basically sends you in another direction. The Church should be a place where you feel welcome — and understood. And when “God’s representatives” fail, hopefully, they can at least be sufficiently reflective to realize that perhaps they might have said something wrong and remedy it. Few people are unwilling to forgive something like that. But, I really think that there are too many people out there who really don’t care — and they are in professions that are supposed to care about people. Hospitals and nursing homes are great places to visit for anyone who doesn’t believe that.
    I’ve become accustomed to the secular world not really caring about people; it’s the bottom line that always seems to take priority, regardless of all those speeches we get about companies being family-oriented or client-focused or –oh, and this is a red flag! — TEAM-based!! I’ve yet to see any of it be true. It might be true for the people at the very top — but, not for the majority who are able to provide them with all of those wonderful things that they say they believe in. My father always used to tell me to look out for A-#1, because no one would do it for you. He started telling me this when I was a little girl. I started out bright-eyed and hopeful like most young people. But, as the years progressed, I found that he was 100% right. How sad. It explained a lot about his life and the bitterness of the world in general — a world that now seems to grab at things in order to find that happiness that so evades them everywhere else.
    But, personally, I found nothing as devastating as finding myself having to beg a priest — on more than one occasion — to help people who were dying — and they simply weren’t there — no time, “rules” about not giving someone last rites (as I still call them) more than once every 6 months (!!), lying about having actually given someone last rites when the priest never even showed up at the hospital (I know because I was there during the time period that he supposedly came)… These events bothered me more than anything, because I felt like I was fighting for someone else’s soul, and I felt like no one was listening. Ultimately, in these scenarios, last rites were provided — but, I should never have had to beg and plead (and one priest actually yelled at me when he showed up!).
    There have always been years between the negative events I experienced before I tried one more time and found what I am now fortunate to have. I don’t expect people in the Church to throw a party for someone who wants to return (or convert), but a simple smile and words of kindness can make all the difference in the world. Having been there, I can say that it’s a terrible feeling to believe that the Church doesn’t want you. My heart really goes out to other people who know this feeling. To be alienated from what you were born into is so insulting; and to have representatives of the Church, whether they be religious or laypeople, make you think that joining the Church is the same as joining a country club, is clearly disgraceful.
    I could go on and on about this, but I guess my point is that I’m another one of those people who has stories to tell. But I’m glad I found my way just the same!

    June 19, 2013
  5. Renee Schafer Horton #

    Who is minding the store? The same people who always have – and I’m sorry for that. My husband will never go back to confession b/c when he did, after more than 20 years of NOT going, the priest asked how long he’d been gone and was told “a couple decades” and the priest said, “Well, that’s the first thing we have to fix.” That’s all my husband heard and came out and told me he’ll never go back. So many other stories I could tell, but they are heartbreaking and it is depressing. As I once said to a priest, “I can’t keep saving these people myself! You need to shut up and welcome them.” It just doesn’t happen…. Great piece.

    June 19, 2013
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      It makes me so sad to hear all these stories. I know too many people within my own family who have experienced this sort of thing. I can’t count all the friends. And we wonder why people are leaving or don’t come back.

      June 20, 2013
  6. Jean Stokes #

    After reading this article in “The Catholic Spirit” and finding it online along with the comments, I am chagrined that no one is contesting your basic premise–that it is the “secretary” that determines the parish practices and who is ultimately accountable for these unfriendly parish interactions. In practice though, just like on the corporate level, those in administrative positions most likely are only carrying out their director’s decrees.

    While I think that most church office personnel are overworked and undervalued, those that serve as greeters and listeners are, for the most part, very intuitive and diplomatic. But they are the channels for information–not the foundation of the parish. (But even Pope Francis faults the secretary in his homily advising a more welcoming outlook in the parish.) Once again, the woes of the church are dumped on the women.

    Your article is correct in its assumption that many are repelled by their less-than-positive interactions in the Catholic sphere but this issue that could be better served by addressing the clerics who have inflated opinions of their own importance and less than courteous attitudes toward just regular folks.

    June 23, 2013
    • Mary DeTurris Poust #

      Dear Jean,

      Thanks for commenting. Actually, I took the pastors to task in an earlier post sparked by another of Pope Francis’ homilies. I agree: Often the harshness or rules-over-heart attitude is coming from the top, and it’s up to the bishop or pastor to set the tone in a diocese or parish. But that doesn’t excuse people at the front desk — regardless of title — from treating people who are desperate for spiritual connection or information so flippantly or callously. I have received at least a dozen private emails (prompted by my column) from people who have been mistreated by the person at the front desk of a parish, and many of them never returned. That’s a terrible — and unnecessary — loss for us. But I wholeheartedly agree that pastors bear blame as well. I had already addressed that so I wasn’t really going back to that again in this column. Here’s the link to the other post I mentioned: http://www.notstrictlyspiritual.com/2013/03/where-are-the-shepherds-willing-to-live-with-the-smell-of-the-sheep/

      Thanks again for taking the time to write. I really do appreciate your comment and interest.
      Peace,
      Mary

      June 23, 2013
      • Jean Stokes #

        Thanks, Mary, for your reply and for pointing me to your column on the thoughtful comments by Pope Francis. I like that guy. I hope his attitude seeps down to us all. I have watched news clips of him greeting his flock and am delighted by his joy and openness. He wouldn’t be one of those priests who do not use the opportunities at baptisms, weddings and funerals to convey to those attending what is special about Catholicism. He wouldn’t have a canned response to a heartfelt inquiry. I’m hoping he wouldn’t even opt for the special “priests’ only dinner” after a Confirmation or parish celebration. Maybe his example will bring some of the offended sheep back to the fold.

        Thanks for writing your thoughts and for caring.

        June 23, 2013
  7. Mary Ann Smaldone #

    LETTER TO THE EDITOR: CATHOLIC NEW YORK

    As a Parish Secretary for over 20 years, I am dismayed after reading the article, “Becoming a Church of Open Doors” (CNY, June 27, by Mary DeTurris Poust).

    It did not take me long after beginning the “front desk job” to realize that this was not going to be a job, but rather a Ministry for me.

    I am appalled that Ms. Poust did not take the opportunity to commend the good works of the many dedicated Parish Secretaries. I know dozens of them just in my own County. It is unfortunate that some in this Ministry may consider it “just a job”. However, no matter how many disheartening stories Ms. Poust can relate to in her article, I can attest to many more where parishioners and visitors DO leave with a smile instead of “walking out the door and never looking back”.

    With the help of the Holy Spirit, I have had the privilege to minister to the grieving, the scared, the embarrassed, the potential RCIA candidate, new parents. I could go on and on. I thank God for leading me to my Ministry and guiding me each and every day; and I thank my pastors throughout the years for encouraging me and trusting me in our work together for the good of the whole Parish.

    To Ms. Poust, I say, please do not ever tarnish any Ministry as a whole again by relating some bad experiences. You might want to think about writing another article. This time, relating stories of the good and caring work that the vast majority of Parish Secretaries accomplish in the course of their day.

    To CNY, I say, I am extremely disappointed that you would allow the printing of such a one-sided article.

    Mary Ann Smaldone
    Parish Secretary
    St. Denis Church
    Hopewell Jct., NY

    July 6, 2013
  8. Tashema #

    This really touched me in so many ways .
    I love being Catholic but some Catholics just
    Love to overstepped their boundaries they
    Voice their opinion on things in the church that they shouldn’t
    Or at the wrong place and time. And wonder why I keep my distance
    And I’m never around.
    And then when people don’t come to church anymore
    They wonder why. I made the sign of the cross
    W/ my left hand. And this lady came and
    Approached me about doing that. And had
    To let her know it is ok for me to do that.
    Or the people that are more worried about
    When your in church and what your doing
    Instead of themselves. I’m like wow about
    take inventory of self instead of me.
    I get a lil frustrated but most of all I
    pray… To fellow my Catholic stay
    Blessed :-)

    July 23, 2013
  9. This is an excellent post on a phenomena that is common in the Anglican Church as well. Thank you for writing about it.

    September 1, 2013

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