I had just finished a speaking engagement in a parish when a lady approached. She was in her late 50s, and seemed a bit apprehensive about speaking with me. After a few pleasantries, she came to her point: She was distressed because her two children — a son and a daughter — were no longer practicing Catholics.
She had been a faithful Catholic her whole life and simply didn’t understand how both of her children had turned their backs on their childhood faith. The two of them had taken very different paths away from the Church. Her son was now an evangelical missionary serving overseas, and her daughter was an agnostic with no interest in religion. She was slightly less concerned about her son, but clearly the abandonment of Catholicism by both troubled her deeply.
Unfortunately, this scenario is all too common today. In fact, I would estimate that this is the most common thing I am told by audience members when speaking to groups of Catholics. There are thousands of hurting Catholic moms and dads out there, begging God to bring their children back to the Church and dealing with immense feelings of guilt over the possibility that they are responsible for their child’s lack of faith. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 10 percent of all Americans — 10 percent! — are former Catholics. This makes former Catholics the third-largest “religious group” in the country behind Catholics and Southern Baptists.
So, what can a parent or sibling or cousin do to help his fallen-away family members return to the Church’s fold? Although individual situations are unique, there are some fundamental principles that we can follow to help the former Catholics in our families reconsider the Church.
Pray, then pray some more
As Catholics, we know that everything starts with prayer. At least, we know this in our heads, but we don’t always follow through with it in our actions. Sometimes our concern for our family members is so all-consuming that we feel we must act, act, act in order to make a loved one return to the Church. But not only can we never “make” someone return to the Church, all our actions are naught if they are not founded on prayer. In fact, when not based on a deep prayer life, they can be counterproductive. By praying we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, who guides us in all our actions, including how we interact with our fallen-away family members. And, we grow in holiness, making it easier for our loved ones to see Christ in us.
Perhaps no virtue is more important when it comes to praying for our family members than perseverance. It is not uncommon to hear of mothers who have been praying for their fallen-away children for decades with no apparent result.
But our Lord Jesus Christ promises us that our heavenly Father does hear our prayers:
“Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt 7:7-11)
We must trust our Father in heaven that he hears our prayers and that he answers them. We might not see the results for a very long time — or perhaps not at all in this life — but we can be assured that when we pray, we are helping our fallen-away loved ones in ways we can’t even begin to imagine.
What exactly should we pray for? Obviously, we ask that our loved ones might return to the Church. But I think we can be more specific than that. We can ask that the Lord might bring faithful Catholics into their lives, especially a good priest. We can ask for opportunities to share the Catholic faith in ways that are attractive to our loved ones. And we can ask that we might be given the right words to say whenever the Church is discussed in our fallen-away loved one’s presence. When we ask for these things, we will be amazed at how often God answers our specific prayers in ways we never thought possible.
Don’t fight — invite
One of the biggest challenges facing Catholic families in which some members have left the Faith is the constant tension that threatens to escalate into a bitter argument at every family gathering. Since our Catholic faith permeates every aspect of our lives, it is nearly impossible to have a meaningful conversation with a loved one without it coming into play.
Some families avoid hostilities by keeping their conversations as bland as possible, discussing only the weather and the latest sports events. Other families dance around the elephant in the room, sometimes successfully and sometimes not so successfully. And some families simply launch into full-scale verbal war at the first sight of each other. No matter how a family handles the tension, the stress of such situations can become unbearable for parents and siblings. What can be done?
A helpful phrase to remember is “don’t fight — invite.” By this I mean that one should look to avoid unnecessary confrontation (and most confrontation is unnecessary), but always be willing to invite loved ones to re-experience Catholicism, whether by attending Mass, reading a good Catholic book or attending a Catholic talk.
Most family fights are on familiar battlegrounds — perhaps a son is living with his girlfriend or a daughter is attending a Protestant church. In these cases, everyone has established positions, and it is unlikely a discussion is going to change any hearts. The bunkers are well-fortified, and everyone is already on the defensive.
One does not need to support such life choices, but at the same time one does not have to rehash old arguments over and over. All this does is entrench everyone and lead to bad feelings and resentful words.
This does not mean, however, that we should be silent about our Catholicism. Our Lord expects us to share our faith with others with our words, and this includes our family members. We should constantly be looking for opportunities to invite others to reconsider the Church.
Perhaps a fallen-away daughter is having trouble with her own teenage children — one could offer her a book by a solid Catholic parenting expert like Ray Guarendi. Such a book helps the daughter with her problem, but it also shows that the Church offers solid, time-tested answers to many of life’s most difficult challenges.
Or perhaps a fallen-away brother is struggling with the death or sickness of his spouse. Tell him that you will pray a Rosary or offer a Mass for the spouse. Or maybe a cousin who is now Protestant mentions how hard it is to pray — offer her a book by one of the many Catholic saints who wrote about prayer, such as St. Teresa of Avila or St. John of the Cross.
Be as supportive as possible
When a loved one has left the Church, that sad reality often dominates our thoughts about this person. But it is important also to see the total picture: Is your son a good husband to his wife, a good father to his children? Does he work hard and care for the needs of others?
Especially when it comes to loved ones who have become evangelical Protestants, there can still be a lot of good in a person’s life, even if they have left the visible confines of the Church. And it is important that they know that we still recognize and honor those good things.
If every time a family member arrives he is constantly on guard against challenges to his life decisions, how welcome do you think he feels? Again, this is not a matter of accepting bad choices made by loved ones. Instead, it is about affirming the good choices they have made.
In the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium), the Church declared that “many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure” (No. 8). We must recognize this fact, and understand that even if a family member has left the Church, there can still be elements of sanctification and truth in his life. These elements, which Vatican II furthermore says are “gifts belonging to the Church of Christ,” are means by which people draw closer to Christ and thus to his Church on earth.
So, if an evangelical Protestant family member is praising the goodness of the Lord, don’t nitpick his theology — instead embrace his love for Christ and encourage him to deepen it, for everyone who draws closer to Christ draws closer to his Body on earth, the Church.
Live your faith joyfully
Finally, there is no better “advertisement” for the truth and beauty of the Catholic faith than someone who lives it joyfully and enthusiastically. If a Catholic parent is always complaining about the state of the Church, or constantly critiquing the latest decisions of our bishops, do you really think his fallen-away children are going to be tempted to return?
This is not to say that one must always present a rose-colored view of the Church; acknowledging the failures of our leaders — as well as our own failures — proclaims one of the fundamental truths of Catholicism: that we are a fallen race in need of a Savior. But there is so much good going on in the Church and so many means within it by which we can become closer to Our Lord.
This should be the main focus of our conversations about the Church with our fallen-away loved ones. So, instead of criticizing how another Christian body practices its faith, rejoice in the power of the Eucharist to change lives. Instead of disputing the actions of your bishop at every opportunity, be grateful for the gift of apostolic succession which has handed on the Truth for 2,000 years.
And most important: Strive for personal sanctity. I was once asked at a parish talk how the Church can attract more former Catholics back to Mass. My answer was simple: become saints. St. Josemaría Escrivá, who lived during the great crises of the 20th century, wrote, “A secret, an open secret: these world crises are crises of saints” (“The Way,” No. 301). The answer God gives to the world whenever trouble abounds is to raise up saints to counteract it. The great crisis we face today — the mass exodus of young people away from the Church — can only be overcome by saints in the Church. Will you be one of them?
Eric Sammons writes from Maryland. He is the author of “Who is Jesus Christ? Unlocking the Mystery in the Gospel of Matthew” (OSV, $14.95). His Divine Life blog can be found at www.ericsammons.com/blog.
Where did they go?
Where did all the former Catholics go? The answers are various, of course, but there are two primary destinations for many of these former Catholics — evangelical Protestantism and atheism/agnosticism. Some come to a deep love of Jesus outside the confines of the Catholic Church and decide that they can better follow the Lord in an evangelical community, while others reject completely any religious attachment and find the Catholic faith — or any faith — no longer compelling.
How we approach each type of fallen-away Catholic obviously differs, but there are also many things we can do in common to help any former Catholic draw closer to the Church.
Evangelical family members
Many years ago, my wife was talking to a priest about a family member who had left the Church and joined an evangelical denomination. This person clearly loved Jesus and felt that her evangelical church was the best place for her to follow him. One of the things the priest said to my wife stuck with her and me to this day: “If someone makes a choice to follow Jesus more fervently, we should rejoice in that decision, even if we know the way they do it is misguided.” God always honors a person who sincerely chooses him, even when that choice has elements of error within it. We, too, should see the positive aspects of such choices and rejoice in them. There are countless stories of “reverts” — Catholics who left the Church to more fervently follow Christ outside its visible boundaries, but then later returned to the Church more enthusiastic in their faith than ever before.
God understands that most of our choices in this world include a mix of sincerity, emotions, ignorance and selfishness. How difficult it is in our fallen world to ever make a truly 100 percent error-free and emotionless decision. To use an extreme example, if a person was abused as a child by a Catholic priest, there would be nearly insurmountable obstacles for him to consider objectively the claims of the Catholic Church. And this is true even for less extreme cases — we all grow up with a wide variety of influences and information, and we make decisions the best we can. So often when a person chooses to leave the Catholic Church for an evangelical denomination, he is sincerely choosing Jesus in his life.
This, of course, does not mean that this decision is not without problems. As Catholics, we know that objectively the best way to follow Christ is within the Catholic Church. Jesus instituted the Church and its sacraments to help us on our way to heaven. He wants all people to be saints and knows that the best way for this to happen is within the visible arms of Mother Church.
So, if a family member has chosen an evangelical denomination over the Catholic Church, our natural reaction will be bittersweet: We can be happy that he wants a deeper relationship with Our Lord, but sad that he has not chosen the best way to obtain one.
Non-Christian family members
The situation surrounding the Catholic family member who has severed all religious ties is quite different from that of the Catholic who is still a practicing Christian. Like the Catholic-turned-evangelical, he no longer sees any point in staying in the Catholic Church, but unlike his evangelical brother, he doesn’t see the need to belong to any religious group. The reasons for completely rejecting childhood faith may vary, but they usually are based in poor catechesis and issues surrounding the moral teachings of the Church.
In this situation, it can be tempting to want to lower the Church’s standards in order to make it more attractive to the loved one. We know how powerful a sacramental life within the Church can be, so surely it is justifiable to ignore one or two teachings so that a loved one can return to the fold, right?
But as loving and compassionate as this approach might on the surface appear, it stands in contradiction to the approach of Jesus himself. Consider the story that exemplifies the compassion of Jesus more than any other: the woman caught in adultery (see Jn 8:2-11). Here was a woman who was clearly guilty of sin being presented to Jesus for judgement. Jesus, in his great mercy, does not condemn her, but he also adds, “do not sin any more” (Jn 8:11). He knows the danger that any sin poses in a person’s life: It separates us from the source of all goodness and love, and it damages our relationships with others.
Jesus understood that it is never compassionate to endorse sin, and the most loving thing we can do when a loved one sins is to encourage him to “not sin any more.”
Why so many former Catholics? (sidebar)
How did this happen? Why have so many Catholics — our sons, daughters, brothers and sisters — left the Church?
The answer to such a question is, of course, one that is complex and cannot be fully explored in a short article like this. However, I have noticed one predominant theme with many of the parents I have encountered whose children have left the Church. These parents themselves grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, usually living in Catholic neighborhoods and attending Catholic schools. In many ways they learned their Catholicism by osmosis; everyone around them took their faith at least somewhat seriously, and their parents could just send them to school — or out to play in the neighborhood — assuming that Catholicism would be respected and practiced.
When they grew up and started having their own children, they (understandably) chose to raise their children the same way: by sending them to Catholic schools and allowing them to play with the neighborhood kids, assuming that Catholicism would be taught and respected. However, between the time of their own childhood and their children’s, the world — and the Church — underwent dramatic changes. By the 1970s and 1980s, no longer could one assume that a child was receiving a solid Catholic education in the Catholic schools, and solid Catholic role models were harder and harder to come by.
So although, like most people, these parents chose to raise their children the same way they had been raised, the results were often quite different. Instead of remaining in the Church, many of the children who grew up after the 1950s found nothing compelling to keep them there and left.
In a way, the loss of a strong Catholic identity has had one fortunate side-effect: Most practicing Catholic parents today understand that their children will not learn their faith by osmosis. They know that the methods used by Catholic parents in the 1930s and 1940s will no longer work; they must be vigilant in teaching their children the Catholic faith at home so that when they grow up they will not be like so many Catholic children in the 1970s and 1980s who abandoned a Faith they never really got a chance to embrace.
Of the 32 percent of Catholics raised in the faith who leave the Church ...
46% have no affiliation.
Of those people, here are the reasons they gave:
54% - gradually drifted away
65% - stopped believing in the teachings
56% - were unhappy with teachings on abortion/homosexuality
54% - are now Protestant.
Of those people, here are the reasons they gave:
71% - felt their spiritual needs were not met in the Church
70% - found a religion they liked better
54% - gradually drifted away
50% - stopped believing in teachings
Source: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
Prayer to St. Monica
There is no saint who understands the pain of having non-Catholic family members more than St. Monica. A fervent Catholic, she was the mother of St. Augustine, who returned to the Catholic faith through her constant prayers. But she also had a pagan husband who finally became Catholic on his deathbed. So she is someone who understands the pain of having loved ones outside the Church. If we have a loved one who has left the Church, we should seek her powerful intercession. Here is one prayer to St. Monica:
Dear St. Monica,
troubled wife and mother,
many sorrows pierced your heart during your lifetime.
Yet, you never despaired or lost faith.
With confidence, persistence and profound faith,
you prayed daily for the conversion
of your beloved husband, Patricius,
and your beloved son, Augustine;
your prayers were answered.
Grant me that same fortitude, patience
and trust in the Lord.
Intercede for me, dear St. Monica,
that God may favorably hear my plea for
(Mention your intention here.)
and grant me the grace to accept His Will in all things,
through Jesus Christ, our Lord,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.
This is the latest installment of a monthly series. The next, on how saints can be companions on our faith journey, will appear June 19.