By Brian Fraga - OSV Newsweekly, 5/6/2012
Patty Howser thought she could never return to the Catholic Church.
As a young woman, Howser, a baptized Catholic, married outside the Church. That marriage ended in divorce, and she later married David, who was also previously divorced.
“Since I didn’t know my faith, I figured, ‘That’s it. There’s no way I’m ever going back now,’” said Howser, a resident of Williamsburg, Va., who has since returned to the Church thanks to her parish’s “Welcome Home” program for returning Catholics.
The Welcome Home program at St. Bede Church in Williamsburg guided David and Patty through the annulment process, eventually allowing them to have their marriage convalidated in the Church almost 26 years after they first exchanged vows.
“My faith, I just can’t get enough of it now. God and the Church are the No. 1 things in my life,” Howser said.
Howser’s story is common in many respects for Catholics who are estranged from the Church for a variety of reasons. However, her story also underscores the reality that many fallen-away Catholics have a deep yearning to be reunited with their faith, and what they need is a nonjudgmental voice ready to embrace them and welcome them back.
“Of course, there will be some folks who no matter how much you try to teach them, they’ll reject the teachings. But as a Church, we have to do a better job in catechizing and explaining the Church’s teachings,” said Chuck Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University’s School of Business.
Zech and Jesuit Father William Byron, a professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, conducted a survey last fall for the Diocese of Trenton, N.J., where they polled 298 Catholics who had stopped attending Mass.
Zech told Our Sunday Visitor that half of the survey’s respondents had something negative to say about priests, whom they described as “arrogant,” “distant” and “insensitive.” One woman recounted being berated in the confessional, and made to feel like the “worst person in the world” for using birth control. Another woman said her pastor refused to preside at her young son’s graveside ceremony because he was buried in a non-Catholic cemetery.
“That one makes you shake your head and wonder why would a priest ever do that?” said Zech, who added that many respondents said they were also troubled by the Church’s teachings on same-sex marriage, women priests, divorce and remarriage. Those responses indicate the Church could do a better job explaining its teachings in a modern context.
But besides matters of Catholic doctrine, a few other common complaints highlight areas that the Church has fallen short in, and indicate that a different approach could go a long way in welcoming back the faithful.
For example, many respondents complained about clericalism, and detached priests who looked down on them.
Respondents also said they were turned off by the clergy sex abuse scandal, and the inadequate response from some bishops. Some complained about the quality of the music and preaching, and the lack of faith-formation programs, while others said a negative experience, such as an insensitive comment, had alienated them.
“Whatever the issue, the hurt was real to them, and it was something serious enough, at least in their minds, to separate them from the Eucharist,” Zech said.
Out of the habit
Tom Peterson, founder and president of Catholics Come Home, an apostolate aimed at engaging fallen-away Catholics, told OSV that he sees a trend where most people drift away because they were busy in their lives and put other things, such as careers, higher on their priorities than church.
“Most people fell out of the habit of going to church, and then they don’t come back,” said Peterson, whose apostolate has aired television commercials in 33 dioceses and archdioceses across the country since 2008. During that time, about 300,000 Catholics, of all ages, have returned to the Church.
“Most of our fallen away brothers and sisters didn’t know they were welcome back and that they were wanted,” Peterson said. “The vast majority of people say they come back ‘because you invited me.’”
Howser said she started drifting away from church in high school. She remembered the Welcome Home program team being friendly the first night she returned to church.
“Right off the bat, I knew I was where I was supposed to be,” she said.
In the Trenton survey, one in eight respondents said they welcomed a call from a parish leader, and provided their names and contact information. A common complaint was that the parish staff was impersonal.
“One person wrote that when she and her husband left their parish, after attending for 20 years, nobody wrote them or bothered to call. They didn’t feel missed,” Zech said.
At St. Bede Church, a parish of 3,700 families, welcoming back Catholics is a priority. Its seven-week Welcome Home program is designed to present and explain Church history and teachings in a friendly and non-judgmental, but also straightforward and honest, manner.
“Returning Catholics to the Church is something we help the Lord with,” said St. Bede’s pastor, Msgr. Michael D. McCarron, who explained his parish cooperates with Jesus’ constant search for his lost sheep. “We love them. The Lord loves them. We’re happy to help the Lord in welcoming them back.”
Deacon Dominic Cerrato, St. Bede’s adult faith director, said the Welcome Home program is designed to help people develop a relationship with Jesus Christ. He said the main reason people return to the Church is a desire to participate in the Eucharist.
“The fact that they’re attending the program shows they’ve already been touched with grace,” Deacon Cerrato said. “My job is to present the teachings of Christ in a compelling, charitable way.”
Erin Zagursky returned to the Church last fall after being away for about 10 years. In high school, she began attending Protestant churches with friends, but later stopped attending services all together. She attended St. Bede’s Welcome Home program after seeing a flier, and was attracted by the program team’s welcoming approach. She later went to confession for the first time since she was a child, and is still growing in her Catholic faith.
“I’m happy to be back home,” she said.
Brian Fraga writes from Texas.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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