They are the second largest body of believers in the country. They outnumber all of the mainline Protestant churches combined. At any given moment, there are nearly 20 million of them. Who are they? Lapsed Catholics.
We all know inactive Catholics: an uncle who has not been to Mass in decades because he hates the new liturgy; a sister who left because she is mad at God after the death of her husband; a friend who left after professors persuaded her that the Church is misogynist because women are not ordained. They were once active in parishes. They were baptized; many were confirmed, and others were married in the Church. And then they were gone. They ceased sharing the faith with their Catholic friends and family, and, worst of all, they ceased partaking of the sacraments.
The question facing all of us is: How do we get them back?
The amazing thing is that many come back on their own. Perhaps they were invited back by a courageous friend. Perhaps they were challenged by an apologetic book or article they stumbled across. Perhaps they came to a crisis in their lives and, despite their terror and fear, contacted the local parish or one of the organizations devoted to returning Catholics. Regardless of the specific reasons, the simple fact is that many have made the decision—freely and in response to the promptings of the Holy Spirit—to return to the Catholic Church. They do it because they no longer can be apart.
But what about the rest? What would it take for the Church in this country to bring back its millions of lost sheep? This is a question being asked by many Catholics today, especially in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal, the crisis over pro-abortion politicians, and the pervasive culture of death that are driving so many men and women into the darkness of doubt and apathy.
The outreach to inactive Catholics is a requirement of our claim to a life in Christ. Programs of evangelization and reconciliation are a function of the entire Church, and their achievement is a catalyst for the evangelization of the entire Church.
What is needed is more than a committee for returning Catholics. We need to create an atmosphere of faith and fidelity that prevents departure in the first place; fosters a genuine, faithful, and authentic community; and leaves no Catholic ignored, alienated, or forgotten.
The setting for an authentic return is the parish. It is the parish that stands on the front lines of evangelization and reconciliation in the United States; it is the most likely place for an inactive Catholic to seek help. Obviously, the first steps toward reconciliation may be taken with the assistance of family members and friends, but actual reconciliation ultimately will find expression in a parish. Simply put, returning Catholics need sacraments, and sacraments are provided by parishes.
Pope John Paul II declared that the parish is “Christ’s presence among men. Parish means a set of persons; it means a community in which and with which Jesus Christ reconfirms the presence of God. The parish is a living part of the people of God” (L’Osservatore Romano, Feb. 18, 1979). The quality of that first contact with a parish to a great degree determines whether an inactive Catholic eventually will come home.
Time for Spring Cleaning?
There are some serious obstacles to such a parish-based approach, though. First, a commitment to evangelizing lapsed Catholics means engaging the entire parish in the effort, and no program is going to work without the support and leadership of the pastor, associates, and staff.
So the first task is to get the pastor on board. Many parishioners who want to start an outreach program in their parish find it almost impossible to gain their pastor’s backing. The understandable demands of those still in the Church, limited resources and funds, and the dwindling time of already-overworked clergy make returning Catholics seem a mere luxury, especially in many dioceses where pews are already full to capacity.
A second and more troubling obstacle is the state of many parishes. If we are going to ask former Catholics to come home, we need to answer the potentially disturbing question: What kind of home are we inviting them to? We have to confront the unpleasant reality that our parishes may not be truly faithful. Is the liturgy in keeping with the norms, especially as expressed in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and other documents such as Redemptionis Sacramentum? Is the sacrament of penance being promoted as John Paul II asked in Misericordia Dei? Above all, is the Eucharist at the heart of parish life as was called for in Ecclesia de Eucharistia? In effect, beginning an outreach to inactive Catholics is an opportunity for ongoing reform and renewal of ourselves.
The common laments of inactives are not that different from those of many actives: “I don’t feel welcome.” “The liturgy is outlandish and not in keeping with the norms.” “The music is terrible.” “The priests are indifferent and their homilies uninspiring.”
But the most heartbreaking lament is: “When I left the parish, no one even bothered to come after me.” Obviously, unhappy parishioners are an unavoidable element in parish ministry, but some injuries come at a time when a member is most vulnerable emotionally, and they leave a permanent scar. When taking place within an apparently indifferent parish setting—where parishioners do not even know each other’s names—such incidents can be difficult moments for a Catholic to overcome.
Launching the Apostolate
If we have the support of a pastor and can say truthfully that our parish is a faithful one, there are some practical suggestions for a successful apostolate: Build an active team of parishioners, obtain good catechetical and apologetics materials, publicize, organize ongoing activities and learning opportunities.
Once the decision has been made to embark on a program of evangelization and reconciliation for inactive Catholics, the next practical consideration is organizing the parish, starting with leadership. This outreach cannot be hurried, regardless of how urgent the need might be or how eager the parish staff might be to begin. Patience and organization are mandatory to insure a team that is both ready to assume the duties given to it and worthy of serving those seeking to return to the faith.
Where possible, team members should be recruited from the ranks of former inactives, as they are especially sensitive to the attitudes, pain, and tendencies of returning Catholics. But team members above all must be filled with fidelity to the teachings of the Church. It does a parish little good to use team members who are vague in their commitment to the Catholic faith and fidelity to the magisterium, especially as many Catholics become inactive precisely because of the unwillingness of some in the parish community to teach the truth.
Several different types of volunteers are needed. The well-catechized and socially outgoing are suited to being team members. Team members will need to commit to training sessions, seminars and lectures, as well as meetings with parish pastoral staff concerning issues of canon law, theology, and liturgy.
Prayerful people are needed for the spiritual support of the team. They can participate in and encourage Holy Hours, retreats, prayer opportunities, and spiritual sharing.
There are also practical, physical needs: preparing the meeting space, volunteering to make refreshments, providing transportation for some members and participants. Especially important are stocking the parish library with books, videos, and materials that teach the authentic faith and providing every returning Catholic a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Seeking the Lost
Of course, all of the above does little good if you don’t make contact with inactives. The ability to buy newspaper advertisement, radio spots, and broad mailings is certainly desirable, but it is not realistic for many parishes. Outreach is possible in other ways, dependent upon only the team members’ creativity, time, and energy. Less expensive approaches include extensive messages, invitations, and articles in diocesan newspapers, parish bulletins, and print materials for local Catholic organizations (e.g., the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Daughters of America, or Catholic Charities).
These efforts will be useful, but there is also a key opportunity for individual Catholics to reach out to family and friends who no longer are practicing the faith. There are many occasions when a casual, friendly appeal can be made: weddings, funerals, baptisms, graduation Masses, birthday parties—any time when conversations offer the opportunity to discuss the faith. Above all, there are the quiet moments (in a coffee shop over a doughnut, while driving home after a movie, or taking a walk on a winter afternoon) that are opportunities to invite an inactive Catholic to come home.
The last key element is follow-up. Some structure should be provided for continued activities and formation after a returning Catholic has been reintegrated back into the faith community. They need continued access to reliable catechetical literature and to informed Catholics who can continue to answer their questions and concerns. There is a danger that the patterns of trauma and isolation will reemerge and the returned Catholic will drift away. Those friends and relatives who played a key role in the return need to be there for the long haul. They should encourage them to deepen their renewed faith. That might mean picking them up for confession and Mass to help them develop a habit of attendance, going with them to eucharistic adoration, or sharing with them books and reading materials that might inspire and renew their energies.
Finally, it is crucial for all of us to remember the end purpose of evangelization to inactive Catholics: bringing them home to the Church through love and forgiveness. With forgiveness comes a change of heart, the power of true conversion. John Paul II wrote that conversion entails a series of relationships: “to God, to the sin committed, to its consequences and hence to one’s neighbor, either an individual or a community” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 38). But it is God who transforms a “heart of stone” into a “heart of flesh” (Ezek. 36:26) by the power of the Holy Spirit.
For returning Catholics, reconciliation is especially poignant. They already have undergone the first fundamental conversion that takes place at baptism, professing (vicariously in the case of infants) faith in the Trinity and the Church and renouncing Satan and all his works. Now, they are called to a second conversion, or metanoia, described by the Catechism as “an uninterrupted task for the whole Church” (CCC 1428). As St. Ambrose wrote, there are two conversions in the Church: “There are waters and tears: the waters of baptism and the tears of repentance” (ep. 41.12; PL 16.1116). The tears of repentance are more than grief or sorrow. They are the tears of joy of a family member returning home.
Those who are involved in outreach to inactive Catholics say that weeping is a common phenomenon. After being welcomed home, returning Catholics sit in the pews of churches and cry, sometimes uncontrollably, because they are so filled with relief, happiness, and the sense of release. These tears are ours to share, because we are their brothers and sisters.