Over the last several years, I’ve spoken with thousands of Catholics around the country at large conferences, small parish groups and everything in between. After each talk I give, there’s usually a time for questions and answers, and inevitably, no matter the topic of my talk, the most common question I hear is some version of “My child has left the Faith, and I’m devastated. What should I do?”
The Catholic Church is hemorrhaging young people.
A recent Pew Research Center study found that half of young Americans (50 percent exactly) who were raised Catholic no longer identify as Catholic today. Think about what that means: Over the last 20-30 years, half of the babies you’ve seen baptized, half of the children you’ve seen confirmed and half of the young people you’ve seen married have probably left the Church.
The Pew study also found that four out of five Catholics who left the Church did so before age 23. These aren’t disgruntled middle-aged adults, fed up with the changes of Vatican II. These are our own sons and daughters, and they’re leaving the Church in high school, college or as young adults.
Most of us know this from experience. We know parents in our parish who grieve their fallen-away children. Maybe our own sons or daughters have drifted away.
Whenever I talk to parents facing this problem, they often use the words “helpless” and “hopeless.” They feel helpless because their children tune them out or ignore them whenever they bring up religious topics, and they feel hopeless because they think it’s impossible their children would ever come back. These parents are desperate to do something — they just don’t know what to do.
I’m convinced what they most need is a plan, for as the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” It’s not enough to just sit back and hope our children will return. We need a proven road map.
That’s why I spent several months researching the problem, talking with experts and those who have left and returned, all to determine what really works to draw young people back. The result was a 16-part video course and book that pulls together the best tips, tools and strategies, titled “RETURN: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church.” Resources can be found at ReturnGameplan.com.
But here are seven simple strategies you can use right now to draw your child back. This isn’t a “convert your child quick” scheme, because these steps can take months or years to complete. But they are proven signposts on the road back to faith.
1. Pray, fast and sacrifice
If you aren’t doing these three things, the other steps won’t matter. Commit right now to praying 5-10 minutes each day for your child’s return. Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow (Lk 18:1-8) confirms that God loves tireless prayer — even if you pray for the same need every day. Don’t give up, and don’t think your prayer is unheeded or pointless. Look at what St. Monica’s prayers did for St. Augustine.
Also, fast and sacrifice for your child. Skip a meal, give up Facebook or Netflix for a week or willingly bear a small pain. Then offer your sufferings to God on behalf of your child. Unite them to the cross and ask that he send new grace into your child’s life.
2. Equip yourself
You can’t give what you don’t have. You may be excited about sharing the Faith, but enthusiasm and goodwill won’t get you far. You need to know your faith. The two go-to sources are the Bible and the catechism. Become familiar with them and read them each day, in small doses.
Then find good Catholic books that will help you explain and defend the Faith so you’re ready when your child reveals his main hang-ups with the Church.
3. Plant the seeds
Even before you start discussing God or the Church with your child, you need to plant small seeds of faith and trust in his life. One seed is unconditional love. Your child needs to know that you’ll love him no matter what — no matter his moral choices or whether he stays away from the Church. He must know that you totally will his good. Only then will he listen to you.
You should also begin planting “seed gifts” in his life (see sidebar). These are DVDs, books or CDs that can lead him to reconsider the Church. Many people who come back to the Church point to a resource like this that sparked their return. Leave a booklet on his desk, mail him a DVD or drop a CD in his car.
4. Start the conversation
At some point, you need to open a dialogue about God and the Church. You might say, “Can I ask you something? I wonder if you’d be up for talking about spiritual things some time. I know you have a mixed relationship with the Church, but would you be open to chatting about it with me? I just want to listen.”
Then do just that: listen. Your goal is to detect why your child has drifted from the Church. Note that the reasons he gives may be different than what you expect. Ask him what he believes and why, and what pushed or pulled him away.
Don’t respond to the objections or criticisms just yet — just absorb them. This may involve biting your tongue, but the scar tissue will be worth it!
5. Move the dialogue forward
You’ve now identified why your child left the Church. Maybe he drifted away unintentionally. Maybe he switched religions. Maybe he disagrees with the Church’s moral teachings. Or maybe he no longer believes in God. Whatever the case, now’s the time to start discussing those factors.
Speaking with joy and positivity, clear up any misconceptions he has. For example, if he says, “I was never spiritually fed as a Catholic,” it’s likely he never fully understood the Eucharist or was exposed to the great spiritual masters of our tradition. Gently propose those to him and encourage him to reconsider.
6. Invite and connect
Once your child expresses curiosity and openness to returning, invite him to a parish event. This might be a weekend retreat, such as Christ Renews His Parish or Cursillo, or perhaps a parish small-group study or community event. Your goal is to usher him into the life of the parish, which will re-establish the communal bonds of faith.
If your child is in college, connect him with the local Catholic campus ministry, such as FOCUS or the Newman Center. Leaders there will be thrilled to talk with him and help him on his journey.
Don’t move too fast, though. Only extend these invitations after he’s expressed openness to returning, otherwise you may push him away.
7. Close the loop
Finally, you need to help your child formally reconcile with the Church. Lots of people get stuck here. A priest once told me about a lady who left the Church as a teenager and stayed away for over 30 years. Her reason? She simply didn’t know how to come back.
Don’t let that happen. Once your child is ready to return, talk with your pastor and determine the right steps to close the loop. Maybe he just needs a good confession, or perhaps the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is more appropriate. A good priest will assess the situation and determine the best next steps.
Obviously, we’ve only scratched the surface of this road map. To go much deeper, check out the tips and strategies in “RETURN.”
The key is to never give up hope. Hopelessness is not a word in God’s vocabulary. As long as your child still has breath, there is always hope. God loves your child even more than you do. As much as you yearn for your child to come home, God desires his return infinitely more and is continually working to make that happen, even when things appear dire.
So trust God, beg him to keep moving in your child’s life, and be confident that he will bring your child home.
Brandon Vogt is the creator of RETURN (ReturnGameplan.com), which includes several resources to help parents lead their children back to the Catholic Church.