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Standing up for ushers: the "minister of hospitality," not unlike John the Baptist, prepares the way of the Lord by preparing the way for his followers.

While much attention has lately been focused on the increasing role of the laity in the church--from parish councils to extraordiry ministers of the Eucharist--allow me to put in a word for one of the most neglected of ministries: the ushers.

Don't sneer. I'm serious. I've spent a few years on the other side of that collection basket, as one of the ushers at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Forest Hills, New York. Ushers are the hardest people to recruit. No one, evidently, wants to pester people for money, stack prayer books, retrieve lost umbrellas, or nudge slowpokes in the Communion line. But the truth is, we ushers do more than take money and give grief. Really.

The usher is formally deemed a "minister of hospitality" in the parish hierarchy--a title that sounds like a cabinet post in a very friendly communist state. But that role--the giver of greetings, shaker of hands--is only the beginning. The usher is a collaborator, a partner to both the priest and the people in the pews. In a sense, he's the laity's liaison.

The catechism hints at this: "The laity ... can be called to cooperate with their pastors in the service of the ecclesial community, for the sake of its growth and life. This can be done through the exercise of different kinds of ministries according to the grace and charisms which the Lord has been pleased to bestow on them."

In other words, those who "direct and collect" have a role to play, a role that is often more appointed than anointed, but one that is still vital to the sacramental life of the parish.

Well, maybe it is difficult to see the usher's role as sacramental. He does not proclaim the Word, like a lector. He does not give the Eucharist or assist at the altar or sing with the choir. More often than not, he (or, increasingly, she) is the phantom on the sidelines--clearing aisles, opening windows, rattling the collection basket once or twice a week. What's so sacramental about that? More than you may think.

The usher is the first face of the faithful--often, the welcoming human presence amid the marble and wood of an empty church. He is the custodian of the temple, making ready the place of prayer. By simply being there, the usher becomes the touchstone for the congregation--a readily recognizable figure to answer a question, provide news, or simply point you to the nearest bathroom. (Ah, how many blessings have been bestowed on ushers by grateful parents panicked at the prospect of a long Mass and a damp diaper?)

The fact is that the usher, not unlike John the Baptist, prepares the way of the Lord by preparing the way for his followers.

And what a way it is, too. Every Sunday the usher dances a soft-shoe ballet, wicker basket in hand, up and down the aisle, dodging baby carriages and tote bags. He contends with problems you won't find mentioned in the catechism. A few times I've had someone drop a $10 bill into my basket and demand five back in change. There are always people who arrive habitually late--very late, 20 minutes or more, as the offertory is about to begin, and they are shocked, simply shocked, to discover that they can't just stride up the aisle to their favorite seat in the front.

There are those who do not realize the collection has begun and spend several long moments fishing in their bags for their envelopes or loose change, while the usher stands there waiting, basket poised, frozen, while the only sounds are the choir and the rattling of keys and an exasperated, "I know it's here somewhere." There are parents who insist on letting their children put in the money, and the tiny tot sits there, beaming, clutching a dollar and making goo-goo faces at the usher, while the usher glares back, pleading, "Please. Just put it in, honey. Just drop it in the basket. Please?"

Some of the faithful find the church too hot. Others complain it's too cold. Always, it seems, it's the usher's fault. Open a window. Close a door. Do you know where I can put my chewing gum? (I could tell you, but frankly it's unprintable.)

Of course, it isn't always the fault of the people in the pews. Let's face it: Some ushers are downright grim. A few appear to be moonlighting from the local mortuary: stone faces, starched shirts, brows undampened by sweat, even on the hottest of Sundays. They do not direct; they deflect. They are dour Dobermans sniffing the air for sin. Is that a baseball cap on a head in the third row? And they are off, to snarl and froth and send a terrified teenager into a sulk.

There are some ushers who have evidently been doing their jobs for two or three centuries. They will not, cannot change. At a recent workshop on ushering--yes, believe it or not, there are such things--it was suggested that ushers direct the Communion line by facing the folks in the pews--thus walking forward, not backward, to smile and wave the faithful forward.

Curiously, most of the ushers I've encountered are physically incapable of this. They simply have to walk backward. It's the way it's done. It's the way it's always been done. (Personally, I'd like to know just which apostle was appointed the first usher and began that backward march. Maybe it looks more elegant in a robe than in a sport coat.)

Whichever way they walk, the best ushers do their job with the elan of Fred Astaire, the diplomacy of Winston Churchill, and the military savvy of George C. Marshall. And they do it, I think, with that most sacramental of qualities: grace. Sometimes, amazing grace.

The Holy Spirit manages to endow the minister of hospitality with patience and persistence (and often a healthy sense of humor) so that on any given Sunday the temple is prepared, the seats are ready, the missals are stacked and in place. With the usher's help the faithful may then share the greatest part of our Catholic life, the celebration of Mass. Through this unique ministry, hundreds of isolated strangers join together as a community--to become one body--and to receive as one body the Body and Blood of Christ. The minister of hospitality seeks to do it with a firm hand and a loving heart.

By grace and good cheer the usher becomes the link between the outer world of bad traffic and worse weather, and the inner one of stained glass and lit candles. He ministers by helping to create the proper atmosphere for prayer: a comfortable haven, a place apart. No wonder he is most visible around the vestibule--the usher is the human gateway, bidding welcome, or bidding goodbye, hovering between the secular and the sacred.

Of course, I don't want to make too much of the ministry of hospitality. It isn't glamorous and rarely gets much attention. Most ushers prefer it that way. (They don't even wear any special garb--though sometimes you'll see an usher sporting a nifty name tag.) But these humble souls offer something each week, just as surely as the priest or the people in the pews.

They offer themselves--and the Spirit--in a unique and generous way, one motivated by a love for God and for those who gather to worship God. And what an offering it is, too. When given with gladness and good cheer, it's the kind no collection basket is large enough to contain.

By GREG KANDRA, writer and story producer for the CBS News program 60 Minutes II. He lives and works in New York City.
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Author:Kandra, Greg
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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