Representatives from parishes across the Archdiocese of Chicago got an example of what a warm welcome feels like when they attended the first session of the Office of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship’s Vitality Day: Hospitality and Welcoming. The May 30 session at St. Ferdinand Parish, 3131 N. Mason Ave., included discussion, prayer and reflection. First, though, participants were welcomed by staff and volunteers at the entrance to the parking lot, outside the building directing them to the correct door, and at the entrance to the room. Inside, everyone was offered a hot meal and a chance to connect with other participants before the formal program started. The idea, said Father Peter Wojcik, is to make people who come to Catholic parishes feel that their presence is truly wanted. “It’s not about being good enough,” Wojcik said. “It’s about being so good that people say, ‘Wow. They really want me here.’” Meetings were to be offered in each vicariate, with each site hosting afternoon and evening sessions in English, Spanish and Polish. They are part of the archdiocese’s effort to help parishes build a culture of evangelization, the aim of the ongoing Renew My Church initiative. “We priests were formed and trained to feed the sheep,” Wojcik said. “Now we need to find the sheep, because there are few in the churches.” The church, he said, “took it a little for granted” that people would always practice the faith. “Now it is our job to evangelize,” he said. “We do that by creating a comfortable space for people to encounter Jesus. Jesus converts people’s hearts not by fear or rules but by invitation and beauty.” Elizabeth White, director of the Office for Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship, told participants that creating that culture of evangelization doesn’t mean starting separate “evangelization ministries” within parishes. Rather, evangelization — sharing the Good News — should permeate everything that a parish does. That includes making a positive first impression, she said. She cited research from the Barna Group that says visitors to a church have formed an opinion about the friendliness of a congregation within two minutes of a liturgy starting. They have decided whether they’ll return in the first 11 minutes. And 40% of them make up their minds before ever seeing the pastor. “It’s on all of us to provide that welcome for people,” she said. “It goes beyond greetings and pleasantries. It means seeing that person as a valued guest.” That means attending to guests’ physical and practical needs: Is your space clean and comfortable? Are bathroom facilities available and easy to find? If you invite people to a meeting just after work, can you offer them food? But it also means attending to their spiritual needs, to help them feel that their presence is valued and that the parish is a place that they could truly belong. Participants at the first session said the message resonated, even if it was one that they had heard before. Nina Grenke-Kosinki, who is on the parish pastoral council at St. Bartholomew Parish, 3601 N. Lavergne Ave., said the archdiocese has given parishes advice on how to be more welcoming in the past, but the reminder can be helpful. Brad Collins, communications coordinator at St. Luke Parish in River Forest, said it might help to have a similar meeting with parishioners and let them come up with ideas for hospitality. That might help develop an investment in the outcomes, he said. “They gave us ideas, but we’ve been struggling with how to get people to step up to do these things,” Collins said. Vitality Days will continue in fall with sessions on inviting people, and in the winter with sessions on engaging people. For the remaining schedule of sessions, visit pvm.archchicago.org/evangelization/events.