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Issue Date:  January 25, 2008


Finding a way home

As many as 20 million U.S. Catholics no longer practice their faith. The Paulists and others are finding ways to invite them back.


No matter what word is used to describe them, the population of prodigal sons and daughters -- those baptized but away from the Catholic church -- is huge. Of the nation’s 65 million U.S. Catholics, an estimated 20 million do not practice their religion or are unassociated with a faith community. They comprise “the second largest denomination in the country,” according to Paulist Fr. John Hurley, executive director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York.

Lapsed, disaffected, inactive, estranged, separated, alienated, marginal or fallen away -- each label conveys a situation in need of reconciliation.

Most parishes pray occasionally for these lost sheep and then like water let them fall through their hands. Others dismiss them as “H2O Catholics” -- holidays, two only, Christmas and Easter, and offer them glares in lieu of smiles or handshakes when they occupy regular parishioners’ pews.

Hurley, who has headed the Paulist Office of Reconciliation in Washington and directed the Secretariat for Evangelization at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said many separated Catholics parted ways over a particular church teaching or an instance of hurt from a priest, nun or church representative. “My dad was in the hospital and no priest brought him last rites” is something Hurley has heard often. Others felt the church’s doors were closed to them because they got divorced, had an abortion, practiced birth control or were gay.

What’s common to all who have strayed is “no one missed them when they left,” said the priest, who refers to these millions not as lapsed or inactive Catholics, but as “brothers and sisters who no longer come to the table.” That number has swelled in the wake of the sex abuse crisis.

Hurley said he doubts that the “Come Home for Christmas” efforts that many parishes sponsor are enough to get the inactive back. “We need to be there for them all year round.”

Parishioners, pastors and parish staff have to find creative ways to bring evangelization and reconciliation together and make it the church’s “No. 1 priority,” Hurley said.

Safe landing

Among the best known outreach ministry is Landings, founded in 1989 in Seattle by the late Paulist Fr. Jac Campbell, who recalled British World War II pilots as they returned from combat missions and sought a secure place to land. If they got shot at, they left and looked for a safer landing strip.

“So too for returning Catholics -- if they feel the parish they visit is a ‘safe place,’ they will investigate returning; if it’s unwelcoming, they will leave,” said Joan Horn, national coordinator of Landings, based in College Station, Texas.

Landings is as much a process for active Catholics as it is for the returning, she told NCR. It is laity empowering laity and bonding with fellow Christians, she said. Such community-building helps returnees reintegrate into parish life.

The ministry operates in over 85 U.S. dioceses, five Canadian sees and seven in England. Horn estimates close to a million active and returning Catholics have participated.

The ministry relies on “nonjudgmental, compassionate listening,” said Michael Kondrat, a Landings coordinator in Manhattan, N.Y. It also has a lot to do with the Holy Spirit, he said. How else could he explain why he asked a cab driver to stop as he was passing St. Paul, the Paulists’ mother church in New York on Christmas Eve 1999?

Kondrat, a theatrical technician, was returning to his home in Queens after working on an event in the area. “It was a down time in my life and I was not looking forward to spending Christmas alone,” said Kondrat, who drifted from the church after college. “I rationalized religion wasn’t relevant to my life, yet I felt a hole in my spiritual heart.”

-- Amy Elliott

Michael Kondrat

When Kondrat entered St. Paul, he found a prominent poster that asked: “Have you been away from church? Would you like to explore returning?” He copied the phone number. Within two months he was attending St. Paul’s Lenten Landings.

Kondrat’s experience was not unlike that of thousands of others who long to come home. Some feel guilty, shy or ashamed about their time away; others fear rejection by churchgoers or think their sins are a roadblock to returning. “All come with questions,” Kondrat said, noting that when he finished the eight-week session, he had even more questions than when it began -- and still some doubts.

The job of the Landings team is to establish trust and help returnees heal the wounds they feel were caused by the church or its personnel. “It’s not to steer them toward confession or put pressure on them to return,” Kondrat said, although such steps are encouraged if the person is ready.

Each welcomer and each returnee discloses his or her faith story, whether it be a tale of struggling and staying, of drifting or of bolting. That’s why a group of six to 10 is ideal, Kondrat said. “It’s intimate, but not all eyes are on you.”

He recalled a woman who had been away for years because when she’d last poured her heart out in the confessional, the priest yelled at her. Over time the woman still felt called to her faith and desired a deeper relationship with God. When she returned to confession -- disclosing the reason for her long absence -- she was surprised and touched when the priest told her: “I feel so bad. I’ve been praying for you ever since that day.”

A new pastor arrived at St. Paul shortly after Kondrat had finished the Landings sessions in 2000 and asked him to run the program. Currently Landings is not at St. Paul, but Kondrat continues to help train new leaders in the New York area, along with Paulist Fr. Jim Moran, who heads Landings International from his office in Queens.

At St. Eugene Parish in Asheville, N.C., 55 people have gone through Landings during the past six years. The 15th session of Landings is set to begin in Lent with a nine-member group. Tom Adelsbach, Landings coordinator, said the program lasts as many weeks as there are participants so that each person can relate his or her faith story.

“We’ve welcomed back lots of gays and divorced Catholics who thought they were unable to attend the sacraments,” he said. No one has to jump through a hoop to return, Adelsbach said. “Returning Catholics know there are rules and they are looking to their own consciences in the spirit of Vatican II.”

Landings is a lay organization, Adelsbach noted. “No priests are at our meeting, because in many cases a priest is the problem.” The pastor does attend the final session and potluck supper.

But he cautioned, “Without the full confidence of the pastor, the program won’t work.” Adelsbach, who has written a training guide for parishes, has found most older priests welcome the initiative. But “the younger ones tell me: ‘You’re not solving the problem. You’re compounding it,’ ” and take more convincing to gain their support, Adelsbach said.

The ‘Chevy’ program

One of the most popular and widely used ministries to attract inactive Catholics is called “Catholics Returning Home,” the inspiration of Sally Mews of Chicago. Mews called the initiative “your basic Chevy of programs. It’s cheap, easy to use and it works,” she said.

She has parked her “Chevy” program in dioceses across the nation -- Philadelphia, Detroit, Cincinnati, to name a few -- and it is starting in Australia and South Africa.

As a child in a Catholic primary school in Wisconsin, Mews said she was ostracized by the nuns because her family was not going to church. The sisters also allowed other children to make fun of the way she dressed, owing to her family’s poverty. At home she said she experienced abuse at the hands of her alcoholic parents.

“I had no shelter in the storm; I lived in a war zone,” Mews said. One day she found herself visiting a local hospital and being drawn into its chapel, where she prayed and “found a nice sister.” That single link to the church remained with her even though she would spend the next two decades away.

In May 1980 Mews went to a library and got out a Bible. She began to find comfort in the Psalms, the Gospel of Luke and especially the parable of the lost sheep. Eventually she became a charismatic Catholic.

After writing a letter to the then-archbishop of Milwaukee, Rembert Weakland, Mews was invited to become an adviser to the archdiocesan commission on evangelization. Soon she met Paulists and others engaged in ministry to lapsed Catholics. But Mews also discovered “how little there was out there for Catholics who wanted to come back.” By 1986, she had written her own manuscript, which eventually became Inviting Catholics Home, the first of three books Mews has written on the topic.

The Catholics Returning Home series comprises six 90-minute weekly sessions, offering updated information on the basics of Catholicism in a nonthreatening, RCIA-like support group format. Topics include the church today, changes since Vatican II, the Mass, reconciliation and the Creed. Each session includes prayer and sharing.

Mews said the program “is laid out like an easy-to-follow cookbook,” and requires only a team of two to five parishioners to do publicity six weeks before it begins. Most parishes hold sessions twice yearly, generally in Lent and Advent.

Emergency room

Lorie Duquin calls the “Come and See” program used in the Buffalo, N.Y., diocese “the emergency room” for disaffected and alienated Catholics. “We don’t solve all their problems, but we let people get in touch with their issues and we make lots of referrals.”

Come and See is broad-based evangelization “not just for people returning, but for those who haven’t left yet,” said Duquin, who coordinates the initiative. A freelance writer, she is also director of parish life at St. John the Baptist parish in Lockport, N.Y.

Begun in 2001, Come and See invited Catholics from across the diocese and also from Quebec, Canada, to come to St. Benedict Church on the first Thursday of each month. Some 80 to 150 persons arrive monthly, half of them first-time attendees and a quarter of them separated or divorced.

In the table talk segment of the evening, participants are offered a range of topics -- surviving cancer, Bible basics, Catholic singles, answering fundamentalist questions -- as well as resource material and referrals to priests, parishes and organizations.

Often disaffected Catholics are just in the wrong parish or in contact with the wrong priest, Duquin said. Come and See volunteers can help direct those who want to rejoin a parish to find one where they would be at ease. Those attending a Pentecostal church may need to return to a Catholic charismatic community or to a parish with Bible study.

The church tries to bring “its healing power” to those who have had painful marriages by hosting weekend retreats for them. It also provides 60 annulment companions who can work one-on-one with those applying for an annulment.

Duquin likened a Catholic diocese to an ocean liner that can dock all its passengers in heaven, but it can’t stop everywhere to pick them up; it can’t turn or go into shallow water. “Come and See is a life raft or speedboat to ferry them back to the mother ship.”

Duquin, who had once drifted from the church herself, said she believes one reason lapsed Catholics fail to rejoin a parish is because when they go back for Christmas, Easter, a baptism or a first Communion, they are “ignored,” rather than welcomed. She has prepared inserts for parish bulletins that model etiquette toward inactive Catholics and role-play greetings and conversation starters parishioners can use to show interest in newcomers or returnees.

Parishes need to do more than “maintenance work,” she said. This requires the efforts of the director of religious education, the pastoral associate, deacon and pastor as well as training lectors, ushers and eucharistic ministers to be the welcoming face of the church, Duquin said.

“Do you really want these people back?” she often asks when presenting a workshop on evangelization. She believes many parishes do not want to deal with people whose lifestyles may be “messy” and certainly different from those of many in the pews.

For those skeptical of lay efforts to bring Catholics back and afraid that returnees “might run up to Communion when they shouldn’t,” Mews said: “If we poll everyone in the church, who would be worthy to receive the Eucharist?”

Patricia Lefevere is a longtime contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2008

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