It’s early morning and I am sitting by my mom’s bedside. My sister is dozing in a chair and my youngest daughter checking her phone, messaging friends and watching videos. My mom is on her last days. Alzheimer’s claimed her long ago, but still, she is my mom. She was – is – an amazing woman. She taught me about welcome, hospitality and graciousness.
Bishop Caggiano from Bridgeport Connecticut says that if we want company in church we should do what his Italian mom says: “ Clean the house, make some food and when people come, treat them like family.” ( Convocation of Catholic Leaders , The Joy of the Gospel in America, July 2017)
That’s what MY mom said. On Saturday mornings, we had a job or two. Clean your bedroom and another task assigned to do before doing anything or going anywhere. I used to grumble that my younger sister Lora got the easy jobs like dusting the curio cabinet or vacuuming. She was always done long before me. I asked my mom once why it mattered if we cleaned the house. We were just going to mess it up again…why not just relax? She said,“ We clean for us; it’s what family does. We make a lovely space for each other, so we can enjoy the home we have and be ready to welcome others.” And there were lots of others.
Neighbors enjoyed my mom’s baking and made it into our kitchen often for a cup of coffee, a chat, and a cookie or cake just out of the oven. The sisters from the convent across the street came over and my mom mended and hemmed their clothes. They too could sit and visit for a minute and grab a treat. I often thought they left in a hurry, grateful for their vocation. With eight kids, the house was anything but quiet!
And then there were the parties. My parents loved to entertain. In the summer, my dad would grill out for neighbors and friends and show off his amazing Italian cooking skills. Everyone in the neighborhood thought that we were exotic being Italian. It was an Irish Catholic neighborhood. The Italian sausage or meatball sandwiches were their immersion into culture! My mom was the backbone of every gathering, shopping, cooking, planning, decorating, and enjoying the company. She was a lovely host and made people feel at home and like they were family.
Observing all that growing up I think I have a pretty good sense of hospitality and welcome and why they are my passion. I learned that the chores were a discipline and so is welcome and hospitality. We choose to do that and learn how to infuse it into our daily lives. I am sure there were times my mom would have rather just sat and watched cartoons all day with us, but there were things to do and people to care for and so came the innate and intuitive form of hospitality. In my work I do lots of consultations and visits with parishes. I often hear parish staffs and pastors say they want to do better at being welcoming because it’s important, but they really don’t know what it means.
For my mom, it’s an interior thing first. It is noticing others, putting others before yourself, looking for ways to help and care for people. As Christians, our relationship with God turns our hearts toward the other and our eyes are open to see need.
It is easy to brush that off and say hospitality doesn’t really matter or that people don’t really care if the room looks nice and clean or snacks are set out. Those are excuses. Those responses come from a lack of true understanding of the gift of hospitality. The scriptures remind us just how important it is:
- Titus 1:8 – “Instead, he must be hospitable to strangers, must appreciate what is good and be sensible, honest, moral and controlled.”
- Romans 12:13 – When God’s people are in need be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.
- Hebrews 13:1-2 – Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!”
I thank my mom today for the initial catechesis of hospitality. I witnessed her generosity often and I know it impacted my life. One last story to honor her. Early one morning when I was in 3rd or 4th grade I was up before my siblings and was helping to get breakfast ready and lunches made with my mom. There was a knock at the back door and I saw it was our little neighbor boy Tony. He was barefoot, but in his school uniform. He looked just as surprised to see me as I was to see him. My mom came to the door with a large grocery bag and asked me to help him get it home. As we walked next door, I peeked in the heavy bag. There was a box of cereal, a gallon of milk, peanut butter, jelly, and a big bag of my favorite chocolate oatmeal cookies. I left the bag with Tony at his door and came home. I asked my mom about it and she said, “That’s what neighbors do, honey. When someone is hungry we feed them. It’s best to do it in secret too. We have to make sure those in need keep their dignity. If it was us, we would want that too.” We got back to our tasks in the kitchen, but I looked at my mom differently from that day forward. She was a hero of sorts, a quiet saint – generous, kind and offering hospitality to any and all. Sarah, mom of eight, nurse, wife, neighbor, and gracious beautiful servant of God, thank you for your legacy of hospitality, welcome and graciousness. Godspeed.