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In praise of ushers out on the steps


During a recent episode of television’s “Everybody Loves Raymond,” the foggy protagonist informs his father that he is thinking of returning to the active practice of his faith. Asked what he plans to do when he reenters the state of grace, Raymond announced: “I want to be an usher.”

Since Vatican II, the word has fallen into disrepair. They are now called “hospitality ministers” or “greeting facilitators” or some other inflated title much like narthex has replaced vestibule and ambo is the new name for pulpit. In old Anglo-Norman English, usher referred to a doorkeeper. It derived from the Vulgar Latin ustiarius. In England, they were often called “beadles,” and were regarded as minor church officials.

Beadle is a marvelous word with infinitely more cachet than “protonotary apostolic,” a term describing the highest-ranking monsignor. If we hadn’t dropped the word beadle, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in. Beadles not only ushered people to their pre-paid pews, but also kept order by whacking people who were noisy or who fell asleep during numbing sermons.

When I was a kid, I used to sell papers outside St. Alice’s side door. The Brown brothers had the front door. They had their own Philadelphia Bulletin wagon. They were entrepreneurs. I just had a stack of Bulletins and a bag of Fr. Charles Coughlin’s Social Justice, an anti-Semitic screed against Franklin Delano Roosevelt and anyone else concerned with civil liberties. But how was I to know? I only read baseball cards.

I got to know the ushers. They were dressed in their Sunday suits, manning the pew rent tables (10 cents per seat), policing the back of the church, and finding squeeze room in the stuffed pews.

My sainted father was a huge man. Honest pew rent for him would have been 50 cents. But he preferred to stand in back so he could sneak out during the sermon and have a smoke with the ushers. The ushers gathered on the steps, all looking much like the man who comes out when you ring the bell at the meat counter in the supermarket. These men drove trucks and used hammers. One was the local funeral director. Another must have been very old because one morning, while I served Mass, he sank below the pew in front of him and went to usher heaven. He was bald and had worked in a hardware store. He read Social Justice and I earned 2 cents.

Now, over 60 years later, comes Sr. Gretchen Hailer, a Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary who has written a user-friendly book for, in her words, “the old guys”: The Joy of Ushers and Hospitality Ministers: Making a Place for Others, Resurrection Press.

Hailer is a consultant in adult faith formation. She designs print, video and audio pastoral resources “in order to ease them (ushers and their pastors) into a better understanding of what they may be thinking about.” Hailer takes what liturgy people are already doing and tunes it up. She reverences the liturgy but insists that her liturgical recipes be more pastoral than liturgical.

“While genuine welcome is an essential responsibility of the parish doorkeepers,” Hailer writes, “it is really only a minor part of their work of service.” It isn’t easy to usher these days. Uninhibited children now cry at the top of their lungs lest their personalities be stunted. Cell phones bearing powerful messages such as “Bring some bagels home” ring like the hand bells of old. Inebriates and homeless people come for forgiveness or a peanut butter sandwich. Hailer recounts experiences with adolescent ushers with attention deficit disorder and immigrant ushers who unwittingly use obscene gestures to signal a vacant seat. Then, there are those who are unhinged or wanting to listen to their CD player or leave their Rollerblades on.

Hailer lives in Montebello, Calif. A native of Boston, she joined religious life in 1959. She now writes books and teaches adults in Stockton, Orange, San Francisco and Los Angeles. She freelances elsewhere in the United States, offering days of recollection, retreats and in-service workshops with the hope of revving people up. She is presently researching multiple intelligences. (She also serves on the board of directors of the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, although this correspondent has never met her.)

In many ways, she is the typical modern religious, no longer traveling in posses, but ministering as a Lone Ranger in order to expand her impact and to find some interior satisfaction. She is now consulting in some Lutheran parishes without any concern about which faith dimension occupies the corner office.

Hailer writes for the 10th grade level. She is presently doing a book for parish secretaries. Her work seeks affirmation for her subjects. She assumes that they know their liturgy; she only wants to give it some central heating. She isn’t writing a Summa. One can read this book in the kitchen. Wal-Mart has borrowed quite successfully from the greeter concept. What’s most important is that her greeters learn that they are the first experience for the faithful and that they set a tone for all that is to follow. They learn quickly that they “have unknowingly entertained angels” (Hebrews 13:2).

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago. He’s at unsworth@megsinet.net

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National Catholic Reporter, August 30, 2002