Needing to get out of the four walls of the rectory, Msgr. Jack Costello and his basset hound jumped in his 16-year-old Honda Accord to check out different scenery. He saw people, honked and waved to them.
“I’m a strong extrovert,” said Msgr. Costello, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Kirkwood, explaining how staying inside due to the need to stop the spread of COVID-19 was tough on him.
He drove down the street where parishioners Doug and Jenny Walbert and their children live. They had the front porch lights on, inside lights were ablaze and the front door was open, presenting an inviting atmosphere. “Their house was lit up like a Christmas tree. It looked like Times Square,” the parish pastor said. “So I stopped in front of their house and called them just on a whim, knowing they were home. I said hi, it’s me on the phone, and then I said, ‘Step out your front door.’”
They had a great time talking from a distance, with Msgr. Costello staying in the car. The Walberts texted him later to say he made their day, and he texted back letting them know they made his day as well.
That’s when he realized he was on to something, a way to be radically hospitable. That was two weeks ago. He now goes out each evening from one area of the parish to another, following a list of parishioners with a mix of older and younger folks, stopping in front of their houses, calling them on the phone and asking them to step outside. “We chit-chat and talk. I never leave my car. We have a wonderful time,” he said.
By April 8, Msgr. Costello, who has served as pastor at St. Peter since 2005, made 54 stops to talk with parishioners. “I look forward to it. I bounce around and get to a variety of people. Hit the streets,” he said.
He leaves a message with anyone who’s not home and doesn’t answer the phone. He often receives calls back asking him to return.
“I’m energized by people. I need to be around them, and this is a way I could do it without breaking the rules. It started kind of selfishly because I needed my people fix. But now I’m realizing they want to see their pastor, too. It’s fun when we connect like this. No one said go away.”
During the day he calls some older parishioners who he suspects may not have access to or have not developed a habit of watching the parish’s livestreamed Masses.
He mentioned at a livestreamed Sunday Mass that he’s doing the visits in what he calls Father Jacks’s Conversational Car. He bounces all over the place, so people are still surprised when he shows up.
The Walberts have been St. Peter parishioners for 17 years. They have two children still in the parish school and two who are graduates. Jenny Walbert said the visit was the highlight of their self-imposed quarantine. “It made us so happy. It was just a joyful surprise when he arrived at our home,” she said.
She went running out when he called and urged him to visit others the same, safe way, plenty of distance away.
“Truly we are the most blessed to have him as our pastor,” she said. “We can’t get over what an incredible man he is, so full of wisdom. And he shares it with us all to get through this time we’re all apart from each other.”
Hospitality is a key theme of Pope Francis’ pontificate. In his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” he wrote that the Church must be a place where “everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.”
In an Angelus address in 2016 to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, Pope Francis cited the need for hospitality and to listen to the stories of people who are ill, the marginalized, the refugee, the migrant and others.
“Today we are so busy and in such a hurry, with so many problems, some of which are unimportant, we lack the capacity to listen. We are constantly busy and thus we don’t have time to listen,” he said.