It is a story that is told, unfortunately, far too often these days. Your 18-year-old son or daughter heads off to college, only to return home at Thanksgiving to let you know that he or she no longer attends Mass or wants to have anything to do with the Catholic faith.

Fear not. You're not alone. In fact, a similar scenario happened to St. Monica in the fourth century when she discovered her own son had disavowed the Church. She prayed for his return to the faith in which she had raised him, but he chose instead to take a mistress and live a life in pursuit of earthly pleasures.

The story, however, doesn't end there. It was through the help of constant prayers from this dedicated mother that her wayward son renounced his former lifestyle and was brought back to the faith of the Catholic Church. Her son, St. Augustine, would eventually become one of the Church's greatest saints.

Prayerful unity

Today, the life and legacy of this mother and son relationship is kept alive due, in part, to the ministry of the St. Monica Sodality. Begun in 1995 at St. John Cantius Catholic Church in Chicago, the mission of the sodality is twofold.

First, there is the prayerful return to Catholic unity, and second, the sodality hopes to be a source of consolation for those who have experienced the loss of faith of a loved one.

Father Frank Phillips, C.R., is the pastor of St. John Cantius Parish and the founder of the St. Monica Sodality, and serves as the groups' international director. He says the beginning of this prayer movement was the result of hearing so many parents lamenting about their wayward children.

"Over the years, I had parents coming to me complaining about their children who had lost the faith or had stopped going to Mass. The parents were losing hope, and so the idea was to find a way to pray with them and for them," said Father Phillips.

At St. John Cantius, the sodality meets each Wednesday night. They pray the prayer to St. Monica, as well as the Rosary for all the intentions that have been submitted to the sodality. The parish also offers an annual three-day novena, or triduum, to St. Monica beginning Aug. 25 and ending on the saint's feast day, Aug. 27.

According to Father Phillips, this devotion to St. Monica is nothing new. He says the tradition is as old as the Augustinian order of priests, who have had a strong devotion to the mother of their founder.

Not Alone

With 4,000 sodality members worldwide and more than 16 chapters in the United States, Father Phillips uses a monthly newsletter, appropriately named Encouragement, to keep the faithful from being discouraged in their prayers for their loved ones.

In a recent newsletter, Father Phillips reported on a trip he and several seminarians recently made to Rome and, in particular, to the tomb of St. Monica at St. Agostino Church. There, he left close to 30,000 petitions that he had brought from Chicago. He said that the rector of the parish was "deeply impressed'' with such a large number of petitions.

The Encouragement newsletter contains resources, including history on the lives of Sts. Monica and Augustine, as well as prayers needed and prayers answered. "Thank you so much for your prayers," read one note to the newsletter. "My nephew called recently and said he had returned to the Church."

Finding faith

In Sterling Heights, Mich., Louise and Jerry Hand lead the St. Monica Sodality at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church. Louise said her attraction to St. Monica and her story first began a number of years ago.

For years, she had carried a St. Monica prayer card with her in her purse. When she bought a new purse, however, she inadvertently lost the prayer card in the transfer. She came across the prayer again once or twice over the years, she said, but it wasn't until she found out about the St. Monica Sodality that she was reminded once again of St. Monica.

When Hand discovered the work of Father Phillips in Chicago in January 2004 she knew she wanted to start a chapter of the Soldality at her own parish.

According to Hand, the heart of the sodality is the monthly Mass, which is offered on the fourth Sunday of each month. She said that there is a core group of around 50 people who gather to attend the monthly devotion. During the Mass, a covered album that holds the petitions and photos of those being prayed for is brought to the altar.

"This is a spiritual ministry," says Hand. "To become a member we first ask that you begin praying the St. Monica Sodality Prayer every day. With that you can be assured that you are not alone. People all over the world are praying the same prayer for the conversion of their loved ones."

Who is St. Monica?

St. Monica is the patroness saint of married women and a model for all Christian mothers. She is widely recognized as the unwavering source of hope for those who despair over their loved ones who have abandoned the Church. She lived in North Africa in the fourth century and was married to a violent pagan man named Patricius. Together they had three children: Navigius, Perpetua and Augustine.

St. Monica was very devout and persistent in praying for the conversion of her husband, and in 371 he and his mother converted to the Catholic faith, one year before his death. St. Monica prayed in earnest for her children as well. But while Perpetua and Navigius entered into Religious life, Augustine was far more stubborn.

For 17 years, she prayed for the faith conversion of her son who had taken to living a life of debauchery. Many priests whom she approached, pleading for prayers on Augustine's behalf, grew weary of her requests. He was, after all, considered by many to be a lost cause.

Imagine then, St. Monica's sense of triumph and joy when she witnessed her son's baptism in Milan in 386. He eventually would become known as St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the Doctors of the Church and Western Father of the Catholic Church --one of the Church's greatest saints. St. Augustine recorded a series of dialogues with his mother in De Ordine and De Beata Vita.

St. Monica, after her son's conversion, retired to Cassiciacum, but on a return trip to her homeland, died in Ostia. Her relics are enshrined at the church of St. Augustine in Rome, and her feast day is celebrated Aug. 27.

Intercessory 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 (name of family member, friend or others) 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. Amen.

Eddie O'Neill writes from Wisconsin. For more information, visit http://www.cantius.org/go/organizations/category/st_monica_sodality/