Everyone has family members and friends who no longer practice their Catholic faith. That someone may even be you. 

Maybe they simply stopped going to Mass. Or they might be experimenting with different faiths. Maybe they joined another church. Or they might claim that they lost their faith. 

Sometimes, we know the reasons behind their decision. Sometimes, we don’t have any idea.

Drifting away 

The largest group (and the ones most likely to return at some point), are Catholics who drift away from their faith. Seventy-one percent of Catholics who no longer practice their faith told the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in a 2009 survey that they drifted away. 

A recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University shows that many of those who “drifted” haven’t formally left the Church. They just don’t go to Mass. 

Mark M. Gray, director of Catholic Polls at CARA, has noted that many of these folks miss Mass because of work schedules, family responsibilities, health issues or because they don’t see religion as a priority in their lives. The majority are teens, college students and young adults. 

According to the study, 56 percent of Catholics admit that they don’t go to Mass at all or only attend a few times a year. 

“They still think of themselves as being Catholic,” Gray told Our Sunday Visitor. “It’s hard to say that they have left the Church because they haven’t formally joined a Protestant church. Most of them don’t believe that missing Mass is a sin.”

Why others leave 

It’s a different story for people who make a conscious decision that they no longer want to be part of the Catholic Church. Many of these folks leave because they disagree with Catholic teachings. According to the Pew Forum, half of former Catholics who are now Protestant left for this reason. 

Some of these people leave because of doctrinal issues such as papal authority, confession and devotions to Our Lady. Others disagree with Church teachings on abortion, homosexuality, the status of women in the Catholic Church and birth control. 

Interfaith marriage has always been a key factor in drawing people away from the Catholic faith. The spouse with the strongest faith generally determines what church the family will attend. 

Divorce and remarriage are a problem for some folks. The mistaken notion that divorced Catholics are automatically excommunicated keeps some away. Misconceptions about the annulment process make others feel as if they can no longer be part of the Catholic Church.

 People suffering from addictions frequently feel separated from God and the Church. It is not uncommon for people who grew up in dysfunctional homes with parents who struggled with addictions to experience diffi-culty in their relationship with God and the Church. 

The Pew Forum also found that some people leave because they consider religious people to be hypocritical or judgmental. Some complain that the Church focuses too much on rules and is overly concerned about power and money. Some stop believing in God or begin to think of religion as superstition.

Reclaiming faith 

The good news is that each year thousands of Catholics come back to the Church. There are, however, no studies tracking those who return. There are no statistics on how they made the decision. There is no analytical data on the steps they took to reconcile themselves with God and the Church. 

“It’s complex,” Gray said. “It would be difficult in a telephone survey to identify respondents who fell away and came back. I don’t know of anyone who has tried to measure that.” 

Most of the available information is based on personal accounts from the individuals themselves or anecdotal reports from priests and people who are involved in parish ministries that help those who are thinking about coming back. 

The factors involved in a person’s decision to come back to the Church are as varied as the individuals themselves. Many young people, who drifted away after high school or college, return after they marry and decide to raise their children in the Catholic faith. 

For some it is part of a spiritual quest to find deeper meaning and purpose in life. Childhood memories can trigger a desire to return to their faith. The influence of family members and friends also draws people back to the Church. 

The need to forgive and to be forgiven can be a trigger for people who struggle with guilt and regrets over bad choices that they have made. They turn to God and the Church in an attempt to heal the pain of the past. 

Some people come back because of a major event in their lives. It might be something bad that happens, like a death, a serious illness, a job loss or some other tragedy. Or it might be something good, like a marriage, a new baby, a new home or some other cause for celebration. 

Some people read their way back in a search for truth. Others feel a deep hunger for the Eucharist.  

Common denominator 

While the circumstances surrounding people’s decision to come back to their Catholic faith are all unique, there is one common denominator. In every instance, they are drawn back to God and the Catholic Church by the Holy Spirit. 

Some people feel as if the Holy Spirit spoke to them in quiet revelations. Others are jolted by strange coincidences. Some experience deep insights. Or they are moved in a moment of fear, anxiety or indecision. 

“It’s grace,” said actor Martin Sheen, who returned to the Catholic Church in 1981. “The fact that you feel drawn back to the Church is the grace.” 

For Sheen, the first impulse to return to the Catholic Church occurred in 1977, after a heart attack. Fear of death brought him back to the Church, but when he recovered, he fell away again. 

Four years later, while he was in India, he was deeply moved by the poverty and human degradation. A few months later, in Paris, he felt as if God were calling him to come back to the Catholic Church. He went to a nearby rectory and asked a priest to hear his confession. 

“I lived for many years without faith,” he said. “When I returned to the Church, I had been away for 15 years, perhaps more. So for me, the moment I was born to the faith, I thought, ‘I am home. I am home. I am free.’”

Making a choice 

Coming back to the Catholic Church is a choice. It is a choice to decide whether to go to Mass, or to confession, or to join a parish ministry for returnees, or to explore what it really means to be Catholic today. 

Sometimes, people have to set aside resentments and negative attitudes. Some have to apply for an annulment or make arrangements to have a marriage that took place outside the Church blessed by a priest or a deacon. Others have to forgive people in the Church or make amends for something that they did that hurt someone else. 

Most people say that coming back to the Church is not an event as much as it is a process that leads them on a spiritual journey. “It takes a lot of courage to accept responsibility for our own faith,” Sheen said. “I made the choice to come back. I go to Mass because I choose to — not because I have to. As the Mass begins and the crucifix in the central nave comes close, I think: ‘I know this man. He is my redeemer. He also belongs to me.’” 

Lorene Hanley Duquin writes from New York.

How faith develops 

Faith is a gift. But experts agree that there are several theories about faith development. Most of these theories incorporate the following four stages: 

Childhood faith: Young children accept the religious beliefs that their parents pass on to them. During this stage, faith is something the family does. It has no personal implications for a child. 

Belonging faith: As children get older they develop a sense of belonging to a parish. They attend religious education classes, participate in liturgies, join in service projects and get involved in youth activities. During this stage they identify themselves as Catholic, and they begin to understand that there are moral guidelines and responsibilities involved with being part of the Church. 

Questioning faith: During adolescence and young adulthood, questions and doubts arise. This is a transition stage when young people let go of their childhood faith so they can grow into an adult faith relationship with God and the Catholic Church. During this stage many young people feel alone and confused. Some remain stuck in this transition and struggle throughout their lives with unresolved questions, doubts, anger and resentment. 

Committed faith: The culmination of the faith journey leads people to an adult faith commitment. Pope Benedict XVI tells us: “An ‘adult’ faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deception from truth. We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith — only faith — that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.”

When Old Memories Surface (sidebar)

The Holy Spirit often draws people back to the Church through memories. Sometimes, negative memories surface, and people have to separate their anger toward the person in the Church who hurt them and focus instead on the gentle movement of the Holy Spirit, which is drawing them back. 

More often, however, positive memories of music, the peacefulness of a church, childhood devotions or feeling the presence of God emerge. People wonder if it would ever be possible to feel connected to God again. 

Memories are an important part of a person’s spiritual journey. Talking to a priest, a deacon or a pastoral associate about the memories will help begin the process of discerning where the Holy Spirit is leading.

When people disagree with the Church (sidebar)

It’s not unusual for people to struggle with Catholic teachings. Often their opinions are based on what they read or heard in secular media. 

Janet Morana, executive director of Priests for Life, stopped going to Mass as a teenager. As a young mother, she felt drawn back to the Church, but she struggled with several Church teachings. 

Her parish priest offered to discuss her objections, but first, he asked her to read the documents that explained the teachings. After four months of reading and discussing, Morana began to see Church teachings from a different perspective. 

“I had to work through all my ‘problems’ and my ‘points,’” she told OSV. 

Many people don’t understand that Catholic teaching always comes from God speaking through Scripture, tradition, natural law and the teaching authority of the pope and the bishops to interpret how divine revelation applies in society today. 

For example, the Church interprets “Thou shalt not kill,” as a prohibition against homicide, euthanasia, suicide and abortion, with strong warnings that the death penalty and war are allowable only in extreme cases. 

It’s important to encourage anyone who is struggling with Church positions on various issues to examine the teachings themselves. They will acquire a new and deeper understanding of the Church teaching only when they look at the issues from a deeper perspective.

Searching for Truth (sidebar)

Kevin Vost, a clinical psychologist, lost his faith as a college student while reading atheistic philosophers. He stopped believing that God existed. 

Twenty-three years later, after listening to a lecture about St. Thomas Aquinas, he began to see the compatibility of faith and reason and the possibility of God’s existence. He continued to read and his search for truth brought him back to the Catholic Church. He is the author of “From Atheism to Catholicism: How Scientists and Philosophers Led Me to the Truth” (OSV, $16.95). 

“I did not know until I was already back in the Church that Pope Leo XIII had written in the encyclical Aeterni Patris in 1879 that modern scientific-minded people would be most likely to come back to the Church through the writings of the great scholastic philosophers and theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas,” Vost said. “Well, 125 years after Pope Leo wrote that, it happened to me!”


Some people stay away from the Church because they are afraid of confession. A bad experience as a child, not knowing what to say, or feeling so ashamed that they don’t want to admit what they did are common fears. 

When people try to bury fears, it usually results in additional guilt, anger and resentment. Confession offers the opportunity to open old wounds and let the poison drain out. It is a healing process. 

If you or someone you know wants to go to confession but aren’t sure what to say or do, here are some suggestions: 

You can make an appointment to meet individually with a priest or you can walk into a confessional. 

Most people start with the prayer: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been a long time since my last confession.” Or you can simply say, “I’ve been away from the Catholic Church for a long time, and I was hoping you could help me make a good confession.” 

The priest will try to put you at ease. No priest will expect you to remember every sin that you committed. Some will lead you through the Ten Commandments as a way of making a general confession. Others will ask you if there is something particular that you want to mention. 

The priest might pose questions such as: Do you tend to think of yourself before thinking of others? Do you overindulge in any way? Do you take care of yourself? Do you pray? Do you carry any prejudices? Do you use your gifts and talents wisely? 

Do you talk about people behind their backs? Do you ever twist the truth? Have you ever cheated? Are you struggling to forgive? Do you have concerns about your relationship with God? 

When you have finished, the priest will ask you to express sorrow for your sins. If you don’t remember the Act of Contrition, you can tell God that you are sorry in your own words or you can ask the priest to help you. You will be given some kind of penance — often prayers or an act of charity. Then the priest will give you absolution, bless you and welcome you back.

Reconciling with the Church (sidebar)

There is no right or wrong way to come back to the Catholic Church. Some people simply go to confession. 

Increasingly, however, dioceses and parishes are offering special programs and support groups that are designed to invite Catholics to return. 

Several dioceses have partnered with Catholics Come Home to air television commercials that invite Catholics to come back to the Church. People are encouraged to visit the Catholics Come Home website (www.catholicscomehome.org) for information about the Catholic faith. 

Other programs are structured as support groups incorporating prayer, faith sharing and discussion topics that are geared toward letting participants work through their questions and concerns over a six- to 10-week period. 

For additional information on what is available in your area, call your diocesan offices.  

For a list of reconciliation programs and websites throughout the country, log onto the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops website at www.usccb.org/evangelization/reconciliation.shtml.

Spiritual healing after abortion (sidebar)

Most people recognize the need for women to grieve after a miscarriage or a stillbirth. But few understand that an abortion can also trigger deep sorrow and emotional pain. Experts now recognize that depression, feelings of worthlessness, alienation, guilt, shame, anger, difficulty concentrating, sleep disorders and anxiety can occur in the immediate aftermath of an abortion. Or it could surface years later. 

Many women admit that after an abortion they feel separated from God and wonder if they can ever be forgiven. And many wonder if they will be welcomed by the Catholic Church. The answer to both is yes. God’s forgiveness and the ability to forgive themselves are part of the healing process. And the Church can facilitate that process. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with emotional turmoil after having an abortion, it is important to talk with someone. Every diocese offers a post-abortion healing ministry. You can find contact information, prayers and resources at Project Rachel (hopeafterabortion.com), the Church’s healing ministry to those who have been involved in abortion, not just for the mothers of aborted children, but for fathers as well. 

You can also find information, books, tapes, retreats and other Catholic resources through Rachel’s Vineyard Ministries at www.rachelsvineyard.org and Lumina Referral Network at www.postabortionhelp.org.


Veronica Cavan, coordinator of Annulment Companions for the Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y., knows what happens when people receive incorrect information about the annulment process. Misinformation kept her away from the Catholic Church for a long time. 

When she finally worked up the courage to apply for an annulment, she discovered that the process was spiritually healing. She began to see that neither she nor her husband had been capable of making a permanent commitment to each other. 

“It helped me find closure, and it brought me back to the Church,” Cavans told Our Sunday Visitor. 

The Catholic Church teaches that a valid sacramental marriage is indissoluble except by the death of one spouse. But the Church recognizes that not every couple enters into a valid marriage because of immaturity, psychological problems, lack of honesty or no real commitment on the part of one or both parties.  

For this reason, the annulment process examines whether a marriage was truly valid. 

There are a lot of misconceptions about what the Church teaches about divorce and annulments. Here are some of the facts: 

  • Someone who is divorced is not automatically excommunicated.
  • A divorced person is not required to obtain an annulment unless he or she would like to remarry in a Catholic ceremony. 
  • An annulment is a declaration by the Catholic Church that when the marriage vows were exchanged, there was an impediment that prevented one or both partners from making a mature, lifelong commitment. 
  •  An annulment does not make children illegitimate.
  •  An annulment does not cost thousands of dollars. 
  • An annulment can be granted even if one of the ex-spouses refuses to cooperate. 
  • The annulment process does not focus on the reasons the marriage ended. It looks at factors that influenced the couple leading up to the wedding. 

It is a soul-searching process that involves prayer, reflection and spiritual insights.

Having a marriage blessed (sidebar)

After receiving an annulment from the Church, two people who were married outside the Church can arrange to have their marriage blessed by a priest or a deacon. The ceremony is called convalidation. Arrangements are made through the parish. Some couples opt for a simple ceremony with just two witnesses. Others choose a formal ceremony with a Mass and invited guests. 

Bringing Children Back to the Church (sidebar)  

Sometimes a whole family will return to the Church together. In many instances, children will need sacraments and religious education. 

Bringing infants, toddlers and young children into the Church is fairly simple. Parents will be asked to attend a pre-baptism class, and arrangements will be made for the children to be baptized. 

Once children have reached school age, they will probably go through a process that prepares them for baptism, first penance, first Communion or confirmation. Arrangements can be made through the parish.

Welcoming words (sidebar)

The influence of family members and friends can be a key element in someone’s decision to return to the Church. It might be the example of a spouse who comes home from Mass with a renewed spirit. Sometimes, it’s the question of a child. Or it could be an invitation or encouragement from a friend, co-worker or neighbor. 

If you know someone who might be thinking about coming back to the Catholic Church, here are some examples of what you can say that might serve as a trigger: 

For people who have been away for a long time: “Have you ever thought about coming back to the Catholic Church? If you’re interested, I’d like to invite you to come with me to my parish.” 

For people who drifted away: “I’d love to have you come with me for Mass or some parish event. I’d like for you to see what kinds of things my parish is doing and meet some of the great people.” 

For people who are divorced: “Some people think that divorced people are excommunicated from the Catholic Church, but that’s not true. If you’d like to come back to Church, you can come with me.” 

For people who need an annulment: “There are a lot of misconceptions about the annulment process. Most people find that seeking an annulment gives them closure and helps them to feel spiritually healed. I can help you get more information if you’re interested.” 

For people who are angry at the Church: “I know you had a bad experience with the Church. But my parish is wonderful, and I thought you might want to take another look. You could come to Mass with me. Or I could introduce you to someone at the parish that you could talk with.” 

For people who are angry at God: “It might sound strange, but it’s OK to be angry at God. The best way to deal with anger is to talk to someone about it. I can set up a meeting with someone from my parish if you’re interested.” 

For people who think the Catholic Church doesn’t want them: “I know you feel as if the Church rejected you, but it might be a good idea to talk with someone who can help you to unravel some of the issues that make you feel separated from the Church.”

Lorene Hanley Duquin is the author of “Recovering Faith: Stories of Catholics Who Came Home” (OSV, $14.95), set for a March 2011 release, in which she interviews notable “reverts” to the Catholic faith, including actor Martin Sheen, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and radio personality and OSV columnist Teresa Tomeo.

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