Welcoming the Wounded

There’s certainly no easy answer to the daunting question of how to connect with disaffected Catholics and attract them back to the Church.

But this season of Lent certainly is a good time to try.

Their personal situations and the causes for their estrangement from the Church can be complex. A plethora of issues can constitute a wedge between disaffected Catholics and their Church. In this article I want to focus on a particular portion of that population — namely, those who have become disillusioned with the Church because of some hurtful experience endured therein, particularly at the hands of those in leadership.

Acknowledging the Reality of Hurt

Generally speaking, Catholics walk away from the Faith for lots of reasons. In September 2016, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) released a report detailing the many factors (according to their polling of adult Catholics) that have led baptized Catholics in recent years — especially those between the ages of 13 and 30 — to leave the Church. The most common reasons largely were generational in nature: discomfort with organized, institutional religion; the loss of faith in creedal beliefs; and the perception that faith is incompatible with our scientific culture, among others.

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All of the faithful have a duty to show genuine care and concern to those who have been hurt by members of the Church. Shutterstock

The PRRI study noted, in addition, that 19 percent of those surveyed left their childhood religion over the clergy sexual abuse scandal; 18 percent reported having left because of some traumatic life event.

The study did not indicate that a large percentage is leaving or has left over a hurtful experience in the Church. But my experience leads me to believe that this portion of the Catholic population is much larger than we would care to imagine. Whenever I ask Catholic audiences for a show of hands on how many know someone who walked away from the Church because of a negative or painful experience, a majority of hands normally go up. And frankly, I simply have gotten to know too many Catholics who have had hurtful experiences in the Church.

Encouraging Those Who Have Left The Church
If you encounter someone who has been hurt by the Church, here are a few ways to encourage their return.

The sad reality is that there has been plenty of hurt to go around: in our parishes, rectories, schools, chancery offices and ministries. And we need to acknowledge the ugly truth that the hurts — and the consequent disaffection with the Church — are more frequent than we might want to admit. It’s a hard reality for us to own up to. And I have seen too many Catholic leaders remain ignorantly, or perhaps even willfully, blind to it.

To recognize this and call a spade a spade is not to be judgmental; it’s just to be honest. In the Church we fail, and fail miserably at times, at that which supposedly is meant most to distinguish us in the world: our love for one another (see Jn 13:35). To begin to reach hurting and disaffected Catholics, we have to be brutally honest about the culture of uncharity that too frequently can burgeon in our midst.

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Examining Our Conscience: Failures in Charity

Key to reaching out to hurting Catholics is recognizing that within our faith communities hurtful experiences arise far too often because of the tepid — or, at times, simply nonexistent — life of charity that colors those communities. And the predominance of uncharity in all its ugly forms — manipulation, betrayed trust, detraction, backbiting, verbal abuse, emotional abuse or even sexual abuse — drives Catholics away from the Church.

What’s required today is a collective examination of conscience and a willingness in each one of us to reflect on those areas where we sorely are lacking in charity in our faith communities. And that means, first and foremost, because we are called to lead by example, that priests need to be brutally honest with ourselves: How have I hurt the brothers and sisters I am called to serve? And what am I ready to do about it?

Pope Francis, to his credit, has been acutely aware of this reality. In an early interview not long after his election, he exhorted all of us to “heal the wounds!” He looks out on a Church of emotionally wounded Catholics, wounds often inflicted at the hands of members of the Church, particularly those entrusted with leadership, and he invites us to share this same acute sensitivity to this portion of the Church, composed of Catholics who have endured hurts in their experience of the Church. And in this sense, he wonderfully has conceived of our local churches as “field hospitals” ready to attend the wounded.

Meeting the Wounded Where They Are

Reaching these individuals has to happen intentionally and individually. By intentionally, I mean that Catholics need to target the disaffected Catholics they know and deliberately and prayerfully think through a strategy to connect with them and explore the causes of their estrangement. But here, our attitude and approach always will be key.

As Father Richard Gill, pastor of St. Lawrence O’Toole parish in Brewster, New York, observes, outreach to hurting members of the Church requires great patience and pastoral sensitivity.

“We need to remember that the hurting and fallen away find themselves in that situation for a wide variety of interrelated reasons and conditionings, many of them disjointed and not entirely coherent,” he says. “So, there can be no ‘one size fits all’ approach. Many people are half in, half out; these might be people who participate on their own terms, perhaps occasionally attending Mass; who don’t believe all that much; who struggle with their own perplexities about the Faith and the Church.”

Father Gill, who successfully has run out-of-the-box parish evangelization programs such as Alpha and the ChristLife Series, attracting dozens of Catholics each year to return to a more committed living of the Faith, cogently observes, however, that accompanying them in dealing with the complexities of their lives requires patience, gentleness and an approach free of judgmentalness.

Dianne Davis, New York regional director of ChristLife ministries, agrees. She points out that a key element in her ministry’s success is to provide participants with a nonthreatening, nonjudgmental environment.

“Immediately, barriers, walls of doubt or of anger with the Church begin to come down,” she says. “We as Catholics need to stop and listen to people’s stories of hurt and pain. We don’t need to be quick to give advice; we need to listen and love. So, it’s crucial that we begin with love and not judgmentalness.

“I also think that before we start telling them, ‘This is what we believe, these are the dos and don’ts,’ we need to help them fall in love with Jesus and entrust their lives to him.”

For wounded Catholics, the perception of a nonjudgmental, genuinely caring community environment in a prospective parish can make all the difference.

Many who have experienced emotionally painful experiences in the Church keep the hurts bottled up inside for years on end. And typically these individuals often will articulate other reasons for their walking away: disagreement with Church teaching, the loss of any felt need to belong to an institutional church, and so on.

But very often, just below the surface, deeper than these perceived disconnects with the institutional Church, there often lie painful experiences: they were shamed once by a priest in confession; a request for a priest to go to the hospital to visit a dying family member went unanswered; they were shunned by a teacher at their Catholic elementary school; and the list could go on.

The perception that someone is ready to listen with genuine compassion can change all that. If a kind and committed Catholic brother or sister, and especially a priest, can ever find an opening to address that hurt, then the pent-up anger can begin to subside, and disagreements with the institutional Church can be dealt with more easily — or they even might fall by the wayside.

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The Magic Words

The balm that most effectively can break through the real or supposed disagreements with the Church and get at the actual underlying wounds quite simply is a sincere word of apology.

Part and parcel of being a genuinely caring Christian community is the ability to recognize and admit our failures in charity — and to ask forgiveness when we fail. Here, too, we priests (and all clergy) simply must lead by example. When — because of our impatience, our poorly channeled frustrations, our thoughtlessness or omissions, or the quirks of our personality — we hurt someone and we realize it, we have to apologize, plain and simple, privately or publicly as the case may be. A sincere apology on the part of persons entrusted with leadership in the Church toward the individuals they have hurt, even when the hurt was not deliberate, simply can do wonders.

And when it has been someone else — a previous pastor, a former teacher at the parish school, a priest from a neighboring parish, the bishop — who has done the hurting, I believe here, too, without assigning guilt where it might not belong, we nonetheless prudently can find a way to express a word of empathy and compassion: “I am so sorry that happened to you; I’m so sorry you had to go through that experience.”

Outreach Aimed at the Most Wounded among Us

Sometimes disaffected Catholics will be attracted by parish programs that correspond to pressing social needs or in other ways broadcast a message of genuine compassion. Beyond outreach to the poor, hungry and homeless — a constant expression of genuine Christian vibrancy in a parish — today we do well to think in terms of sponsoring support groups for new urgent areas of need. Support groups for families dealing with drug addiction or support groups for divorced Catholics immediately come to mind.

Given the tragic and rampant proliferation of sexual abuse in the United States, parish-based support groups for victims of sexual abuse, such as the Maria Goretti Network, also can fill a vital need for persons who have suffered sexual abuse in any form.

And it goes without saying that such a support group can be crucial for Catholics — some right in our own parishes — who have suffered the unspeakable tragedy of clergy sexual abuse. And when we priests are cognizant of the presence in our parishes of victims of clerical abuse, we simply have no excuse for not reaching out personally to them.

Victims of clergy sexual abuse have historically been very reluctant — for myriad reasons — to share their stories. Admittedly, it’s hardest for most to open up to a priest, especially if it is the first time they are talking about the abuse. But that should not keep us from trying to connect. When, by God’s grace, they receive the courage to open up to us, our initial reaction to their story will have a lasting impact for better or worse on their recovery. Survivors need to tell us their stories and to see in us — in our reactions, in our faces — that we believe them, that we validate what they are sharing, and that we are trying to empathize with their unfathomable emotional pain.

Our genuine, heartfelt and visible outreach to victims of clergy sexual abuse — as well as our candor in talking about the crisis — can go a long way toward opening the minds and hearts of those Catholics who walked away from the Church because of it.

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Priests hold the Eucharist during a Mass of Hope and Healing for victims of sex abuse April 26, 2017, at St. Anselm Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. CNS photo

Starting a Revolution of Tenderness in Your Parish

If our parishes are places of vibrant caring, manifesting the joy and spontaneity that go with this, if we create in our leadership teams a culture of transparency, a willingness to recognize our failures and lead with humility, God’s grace can transform that parish into the fertile ground where wounded Catholics can return and flourish.

But this really requires a transformative and collective effort to shed a parish culture of merely skin-deep concern for one another. It means, one heart at a time, opening ourselves to the possibility of a more radical living of Christ-like love.

It means fostering in our parishes a culture of genuine, evangelical agape love — Jesus’ own love, the love of his heart.

“This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). It’s as if Jesus were saying: “If you have agape for one another, if you show toward each other, in your mutual interactions, in the manner with which you think of each other and speak to each other, in the expressions you use, in the patience, tenderness and veneration with which you hold each other in respect, in the concern you have for each other, in all of these manifestations of the self-emptying love of my heart — if you bear this kind of love toward each other on a day-to-day basis, then, yes, the world will recognize you as my disciples.”

In many ways, we have grown accustomed to a life of charity grown cold. Of course, failures in charity have been a challenge from Day 1 in the Church as confirmed in the letters of St. Paul. But history cannot lead us simply to shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh, well.” The fact that things, often more or less, have been this way in the Church does not absolve us of the imperative of doing something to change that status quo. 

The answer that I explore in my book, “Hurting in the Church” (OSV, $15.95), is what Pope Francis has called a “revolution of tenderness,” a far-reaching, repentant and passionate return to lives of intense and intentional agape love — the love Jesus continues to teach to his disciples, the love he wishes to instill and set ablaze in the heart of every human person.

It also requires genuine Christian hope and trust that change — dramatic change — is possible; that in our faith communities, one or two or three of us at a time, we can strive, aided by grace, to return to the genuine Christ-like charity experienced so intensely in the first Christian communities.

Such transformation is possible.

But we have to understand: The revolution Francis has in mind here is not going to be the outcome of one more parish program. A parish committee is not going to bring this about.

Programs, like the ones I mentioned earlier, can be part of the equation, but fostering a parish environment of intentional Christ-like love, outreach and caring only can happen one heart at a time. It’s a matter of collaborating with God’s grace — and creating sparks.

And if the Holy Spirit manages to spark a fire, if we intentionally foster cultures of genuine agape love and show genuine concern for our brothers and sisters in our rectories, parishes and ministries, and especially if we ordained clergy preach about it, if we humbly recognize our failures when necessary, we have reason to hope that the wounded and disaffected Catholics in our midst will, in fact, give the Church another chance.

And there they will find, truly present with them, and for them, Jesus, the Divine Physician, the healer of hearts.

FATHER THOMAS BERG is professor of moral theology and vice-rector at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York.

Prayers for victims of abuse
Praise to you, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, source of all consolation and hope.