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Issue Date:  January 25, 2008

Chat rooms to deal with problems


For those who worry that a return to their Catholic faith might first require a visit to a church or a face-to-face talk with a priest in a rectory or a confessional, there is another way.

The Web site welcomes users to a series of rooms in which their questions can be answered, their hurts acknowledged and comments shared -- all with utmost confidentiality.

Designed to resemble a home, the Web site allows the user to go through a door and into a number of rooms. The most visited of the eight chat rooms are the two dealing with marriage issues and difficulties with the church or a church representative.

Fr. Pat McCloskey

The chat room designed to deal with difficulties with the church or its representative is a place where a visitor can air past troubles with a priest, nun or church worker that caused him or her to leave the church, said Franciscan Fr. Pat McCloskey, who, along with Franciscan Fr. Greg Friedman and John Feister, founded the Web site.

When one goes to the site, one can click on any of the 50 states and discover a number of parishes or other venues that offer some type of “Welcome Home” programs and support groups sponsored by Catholic dioceses or parishes.

Other chat rooms have such labels as “Drifted Away,” “Felt Excluded,” “Church Teaching,” “Abortion/Post Abortion” and “Not Fed.”

Responders or “companions” staff each room. Some 60 companions, who are paid a modest hourly stipend, acknowledge a visitor’s feelings and hurts, answer questions and offer to transfer visitors to another room or refer them to such features as McCloskey’s “Ask a Franciscan” column, which appears in each issue of St. Anthony Messenger. McCloskey is the magazine’s editor.

Among the companions are lay singles and married persons, and Franciscan nuns and priests. Some have been with the Web site since its inception.

Typically, visitors with marriage concerns post questions about annulment, mixed marriage and reception of the sacraments after divorce. Three canon lawyers -- one of them a woman -- are on call as companions.

Those who go to the “Felt Excluded” room often indicate that the church has treated them unfairly because they are gay, female or are members of a minority group.

Women who’ve had an abortion often think the church has excommunicated them. The Web site can help them not to feel like an outsider and offers them a link to the National Office of Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing as well as to local programs.

For those who have a quarrel with church teaching on sexuality, women’s ordination or personal freedom, there is a place to ask questions within the chat room format. The same is true for those who drifted away and are not certain what they must do to return, unsure what the church really teaches or why it’s not enough to just be a spiritual and moral person.

McCloskey views the Web site as “a hope along the way and while they’re away.”

“They didn’t leave a virtual church and they aren’t returning to a virtual church,” he said. “We want to help them find a place where they can continue their journey of faith face-to-face.”

The sentence: “My faith in God was easy until …” is one that most people who have left could easily complete, he said. Often their reply will indicate the reason they left or drifted away, McCloskey said.

The priest, who occasionally subs in a chat room, is often dismayed by the image of God that visitors present. “What kind of God does this person see? What kind of God has been preached to them?” McCloskey, author of When You Are Angry with God and Naming Your God: The Search for Mature Images, said many see only the “super cop God waiting to catch people” or else “the gray-haired grandpa God who pats you on the head.”

Companions at receive between 10 and 60 messages daily, McCloskey said. The Web site, which went up on Ash Wednesday 2001, attracts the most visitors during Lent, totaling 1,923 user sessions each day last April. The site also attracts visitors from outside the United States.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2008

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