Abstract theological reflections on hospitality and welcoming the “other” are presently popular in some academic and pastoral circles. It is crucial that these discussions include making a physical place in our lives, families, churches, and communities for people who might appear to have little to offer. Hospitable attitudes, even a principled commitment to hospitality, do not challenge us our transform our loyalties in the way that actual hospitality to particular strangers does. Hospitality in the abstract lacks the mundane, troublesome, yet rich dimensions of a profound human practice.
Practicing hospitality always involves risk and the possibility of failure, but there is greater risk and loss in neglecting hospitality. Dorothy Day, reflecting on years of work at the Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, commented “Mistakes there were, there are, there will be…The biggest mistake, sometimes, is to play things very safe in this life and end up being moral failures.”
Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 14.
The whole mystery of the Church might be summed up in terms of concrete and local practices of ministry in the Name of Christ with a universal, catholic intent. Because the Church is Catholic, our mission is to “proclaim the whole faith to all people to the end of time.” We do it best through accountability to others, within the diocese and around the world. But the mission only really exists at the level of direct and local inter-personal engagement.
Hospitality, especially, can only be enacted when we make a physical place for others, and this can only happen face to face. The virtues that must be cultivated so that this can happen gracefully begin before the physical place is opened up. A welcoming heart—or at least the desire to have one–is presupposed. But our hearts are also expanded in the process of doing, of sharing, of working together. Because welcoming the stranger is not optional—it is the command of Christ for all of us—we have to begin somewhere. The worst thing that can happen is closing ourselves off, just because we don’t know where to begin.