Each morning on my way to work I pass by the newest branch of the Church of Scientology. It’s an impressive structure, recently outfitted for the transition from office building to religious center. There was a grand opening a couple months ago, with quite a theatrical set built out front to attract the attention of passers-by. Since the dedication, there seems to be a cookout, an open house, or some other event always happening on the small lawn out front. Now I usually encounter smiling individuals offering me information pamphlets and inviting me to learn more about Scientology. I usually take one politely and smile back. To the average person strolling by, it seems quite clear that there is life and vitality inside.
Then in the afternoon on my walk to the gym I make my way past an historical and beautiful Catholic Church in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood. I attend Mass here as often as possible, and it truly is a lively parish with social justice programming, services in various languages, and friendly priests and lay ministers. Luckily I’m Catholic and I sought out this space, otherwise I might think the building is some sort of relic or museum. There are signs out front announcing the liturgical schedule, but the doors always seem forebodingly closed when Mass is not in progress. I’ve never seen anyone outside inviting people inside, or even offering a friendly smile or a simple invitation to answer some questions. The “Welcome” signs seem to be some sort of cruel mockery!
I offer this contrast not because I think the church should abandon the knowledge it’s gained over the past 2,000 years of evangelizing and instead turn to the leaders of a 20th-century science fiction-based religion for advice. But these scenes I encounter each day make me think about how we as Catholics are engaging a rushed, busy, and modern world. I might be checking email and making a call on my walk to the bus stop, but I still look up when someone says hello and offers a pamphlet. How can we invite an increasingly unchurched populace into our sacred space? How can we let them know what’s going on inside? Is it even a problem we’re considering, or do we think that we just need to be there for those who want to join us?
Let me offer one heartening scene. I was vacationing in San Francisco last month when on a walk to some sites I walked by a pretty nondescript Catholic Church. There was someone outside distributing fliers and inviting people in for a violin concert. This particular church offers free lunchtime recitals weekly, and tourists and locals attend for an escape. Some are Catholic, some are not. But all seemed to appreciate the respite from the hustle and bustle from daily life. They enjoyed some music and entered a space that they may otherwise never have set foot in. Will this sort of activity bring people to the church? Might, might not. But it is worth a try. After all, we’re exhorted to open wide the doors to Christ. Maybe the first step is literally to open the doors to our churches and cathedrals and see where we go from there.