Back to where you once belonged

By María Ruiz Scaperlanda| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Spirituality

As a 39-year-old husband and father, much of Mark's life is taken up with the daily and often demanding tasks of family, including spending time with his 6-year-old son. While Mark's father and grandfather once experienced the Catholic Church as part of this fabric of life, the same is not true for the Denver programmer and systems analyst, who was raised Catholic in a family of six children.

In many ways, Mark (who asked that his last name not be used) is typical of an estimated 17 million nonpracticing Catholics in the United States-the second largest religious group in the country, according to the 1999 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (Abingdon Press), ironically sandwiched between 61 million self-declared Catholics and 15 million Baptists.

Much like the estimated two thirds of U.S. Catholics who drop out of regular participation for a portion of their lives, Mark was already confirmed when he decided to break from his Catholicism. In a manner typical of other inactive Catholics, he names the "freedom to make my own choice" as a reason for leaving, later deciding that the church lacked relevance to his life. Like a timeworn but memorable personal postcard, Mark carries with him the image of an overbearing Catholic Church, with little to offer him personally.

As an adult, Mark has never experienced the power and presence of God in Catholicism or in a Catholic community. "I would probably list myself as a Christian," he notes. "I still have a very deep faith in Jesus, but I don't think the Catholic Church (historically) is representative of the love and compassion Jesus has shown humanity."

And while Mark acknowledges, along with 35 percent of young adult Catholics, laziness as a reason for not attending church (according to a recent survey in America magazine), he also admits that it's not merely a question of time. Like other inactive Catholics, he lists himself in conflict with the teachings of the church on some matters of faith and morality. "To tell a person in a country that is overpopulated and has people starving to death that they can't use birth control is not a realistic approach to the problem."

In their 1992 document Go and Make Disciples: A National Plan and Strategy for Catholic Evangelization in the United States, the U.S. bishops spoke boldly about reconciliation, calling attention to those "millions of Catholics [who] no longer practice their faith. Although many of them may say they are Catholic, they no longer worship with the community and thereby deprive themselves of the gifts of Word and sacrament."

Getting inactive Catholics such as Mark to come home is a top national evangelizing priority. But how to make this a reality is a trickier question, one that demands a critical analysis of current conditions and a commitment to living out the charisms of forgiveness and hospitality.

Who are inactive Catholics?
Describing inactive Catholics can be akin to defining what is American. It's simply too broad to easily generalize. They are male and female. They are barely within the legal definition of adults, as well as retired senior citizens. They are single, married, divorced, students, professionals. They reach across all ethnic, racial, and economic lines.

There are, however, some generalities to their circumstances. Most inactive or nonpracticing Catholics have been hurt by either the church as an institution or by a particular church representative. There is a tendency to assume they have become inactive because of a direct conflict over such things as church authority, artificial contraception, abortion, homosexuality, or the ordination of women. Yet experts contend that most do not leave for such reasons. A growing number of inactive Catholics simply assume themselves to be outside the graces of the church. Many of them get out of the habit of practicing their faith. They leave home or move away and never appropriate their Catholic faith as adult individuals.

For statistical purposes, the category of nonpracticing Catholics can be defined as "persons who identify themselves as Catholic when asked their religion who subsequently say they attend Mass 'never' or 'less than once a year,' and persons raised Catholic who say they 'currently have no religion,'" notes Michael Hout, a sociology professor at University of California-Berkeley.

According to Hout, the percentage of those who identify themselves as Catholics but either "never" or "less than once a year" attend Mass went up from 13 percent in the 1970s to 17 percent in the 1990s. In the 1970s, 7 percent said they were raised Catholic but currently have no religion, compared to 9 percent in the 1990s. Although the 2- or 3-percentage point increases are just within the margin of error usually reported by surveys, the General Social Survey (GSS)-a regular, ongoing omnibus personal interview survey of U.S. households conducted by the National Opinion Research Center-has followed over 10,000 Catholics for the past three decades.

"That allows us to be much more precise in detecting change," Hout explains. "So the magnitude of change is pretty small [2 or 3 percentage points], but the source of 'real' change is not some statistical flutter."

Hout, who has been working for the past two years on a book on American religion in collaboration with sociologist Father Andrew Greeley and Melissa J. Wilde, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Berkeley, notes there are no "statistically significant differences among the major ancestry groups in [terms of] 'activity' in the 1990s." According to Hout, ethnically, the inactive Catholic population more or less resembles the active Catholic population: 80 percent non-Hispanic whites; 12 percent Latinos; 4 percent African American; 4 percent something else.

While U.S. Catholics drop out of regular church participation for a myriad of personal reasons, the issues most often cited are second marriages, divorce, annulment, and marriage outside the church-although Hout notes that fewer defections are now taking place because of mixed marriages.

Divorce is another matter. According to Hout, the defection rate among divorced Catholics who remarry is about twice that of other persons raised Catholic. "So inability to remarry in the church is important for divorced Catholics who want to remarry." Yet even those who divorce and remain single often assume, inaccurately, that they are at odds with the church.

"There's a lot of misunderstanding in the Catholic community regarding divorce. A lot of people have stayed away thinking they were excommunicated or unable to receive the sacraments," remarks Father Tim Sullivan, associate pastor of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City. "It's a source of pain for a lot of people."

Of those coming back, many are baby boomers for whom "the church was too restrictive in their 20s," Sullivan adds. "They left around college time and never became rooted. The church represented authority, rules, and regulations, and they were looking for a wilder ride on the Ferris wheel."

A former altar boy from Massachusetts, David Reed, now a resident of Austin, Texas, was away from the church from his early 20s to his late 40s-all the while "seeking something and not quite knowing what." His leaving was more a drifting away than a decisive break, remarks the St. Thomas More parishioner. "I needed to step away from the church, and I got lost and made a lot of bad decisions over the years." His return, however, was a "real coming home. I just walked into the confessional and [my pastor] was very welcoming. I never felt judged; on the contrary, I felt nourished and accepted."

Forty-five percent of the baby boomers who were raised Catholic are inactive, notes Deacon Tom Johnson, who has made ministering to inactive Catholics his personal crusade for the Diocese of Austin. "Most of these people, at some point in their lives, recognize there's an empty spot in their gut and say, 'I want to come back, but I don't know how.'"

Returnees tend to be "baby boomers who left because they were searching," agrees Sister Nancy Clemmons, who heads the returning Catholics ministry at St. Monica's in Santa Monica, California. "The biggest group are in their late 30s to early 50s. Often they declare that they're missing the Eucharist, the sacraments, and the sense of community of the Catholic Church."

For Pamela Regner, one of the boomers for whom Clemmons was the "welcoming voice on the other end of the line," contacting the parish and participating in the program for returning Catholics was the "final turn of the wheel" on a 10-year trek home. "Unless you're really in a coma, there's certain experiences, certain moments in life, that affect you, and you start looking at the meaning of life. You finally look at your faith as an adult," Regner says.

Pat Ratterman, the oldest of seven children, attended Catholic schools from grade school through college. She married, had five children, and "somewhere along the way," she recalls, "something really bad, something awful happened. And I left the church with my family."

Ratterman stayed away for 22 years. "I wasn't a very good person, at least I didn't think so," she says quietly. "I was pretty much under the belief that I was excommunicated and not welcome."

Ratterman began attending Mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral in Oklahoma City at the invitation of a childhood friend, while at the same time attending a support group. When faced with taking one of the steps in the program, she chose to work with a priest familiar with this particular support group.

"I laid out my whole life to him, as the program says, to make amends with yourself, with those you've harmed. And at the end he asked me, 'Would you like absolution?'" she remembers, now laughing. "I was flabbergasted. Of course, I did! That was the beginning of my return." Looking back, the 65-year-old Ratterman adds, "The marvel of it dawns on me. It's just amazing. It's too coincidental to be anything but the hand of God sending me all these people just when I needed them."


How people make their way back to the Catholic Church is as varied and individual as they are. A parish in Gig Harbor, Washington has a banner over its parking lot: "Welcome Returning Catholics: call Paul (phone number) or Mary (phone number)."

Tom Johnson's parish, St. Thomas More in Austin, presents infomercials-two-to-three minute sound bites-at Easter and Christmas as official invitations. Presented by someone who has walked the journey back, they have the effect of a family letter, a note from a loving aunt with the simple message: "Welcome! We miss you. Why don't you come home?"

Many parishes use bulletin and newspaper ads or flyers asking, "Are you an inactive Catholic?" or inviting "Come home for Christmas."

In cyberspace, an Internet search of "inactive Catholic" leads visitors to the simple Web site: "Welcome Inactive Catholics!" at www.jcn1.com/william. In a six-month period, Father William McKee's modest Internet site received a remarkable 14,258 hits.

As many as half of those who return are self-initiated, most often beginning their journey by approaching a priest for the sacrament of Reconciliation. Others wait for a personal or public invitation.

"Many people want to come home, but since no one ever asks them, they think they are not welcome," says Judy Reilly of St. Thomas More University Parish in Norman, Oklahoma. "It's important to make it a priority, especially at Christmas and Easter, to welcome and invite them back home."

Once the invitation has been given and they respond, there needs to be something to offer them, Reilly adds. "They already feel isolated and rejected. It takes a lot of courage for someone to make a call, to see someone, or even send an e-mail. That person becomes vulnerable. It's especially the case for someone returning to the church," notes Reilly, who is also a pastoral associate and campus minister. "Any further experience of being put off by church authorities or staff only adds to the hurt and may delay or ruin the chance of their return."

Correcting the damage
Almost without exception, one of the first steps for someone coming back to the church involves forgiveness and reconciliation-to self, to Christ, and to the church. "Especially in light of the papal announcement that we may have screwed up over human history and we apologize-there's a sense that the church is acknowledging that it is a human body, and it may have in some way been culpable. I think that's important," remarks Father Tim Sullivan, a Paulist priest from New York City.

"The church needs to 'fess up to ways it may have done damage in its approach in the past, not so much in the content of the teaching but the way it was done."

Programs such as Landings, a Paulist national ministry to returning Catholics, help to "enflesh the human welcoming, the empathetic side of the church," Sullivan remarks. Landings meets in small groups, mixing active laypeople from the parish with returning Catholics. The groups gather as many weeks as the size of the small groups (groups of six people for six weeks, eight people for eight weeks) to give everyone in the group a chance to share their faith journey. "It gives people an experience of community, puts a human face on church first. And that's very key. This then frees a person to deal with church teaching or doctrine."

"These are card-carrying Catholics who already belong to the church," adds Landings director Father Jac Campbell, C.S.P. "We want to make their walk back a little easier."

A number of personal and life events typically facilitate the return of many inactive Catholics: the birth or Baptism of a child, the death of a loved one, a serious illness or personal crisis, or simply the awareness of a need or void that cannot yet be named. While some parishes or dioceses have created individual programs for Catholics ready to explore the possibility of returning, a number of national plans also help people reconnect with the church community. In addition to Landings, such programs include Catholics Coming Home and Re-Membering Church (see box below).

For Ratterman, returning to the church in her late 40s, after 22 years away, was shocking. "All the changes blew my mind. Women were allowed beyond the altar rail-and could even handle Communion," she exclaims. "I don't know how I felt about it. It was enough to grapple with what was going on and to accept it."

Following her individual Reconciliation, the retired broadcaster participated in the Re-Membering Church program. Re-Membering, which started in the 1980s, is a national ministry of the North American Forum on the Catechumenate, based in Washington, D.C. Like the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA), Re-Membering takes the form of a small catechumenate community and uses a team of ministers, who meet weekly with those coming back to the church.

"It was so easy to walk in and come back," she says of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral's Re-Membering program in Oklahoma City. "There was no judgment involved. If you really had a bone to pick with the church, you threw it out on the table, and everybody sat around and chewed on it. And our pastor made us feel so welcome. I remember at our first group Mass he actually said, 'You are the most important people here.' That was so good to hear."

For 43-year-old Michael J. Kondrat, it was Mass at St. Paul's that "showed me what 'church' is supposed to be: lively, relevant, community-based. I had not seen that anywhere else," says the theatrical technician, remembering his first Christmas Eve Mass two years ago at the New York City parish. "I thought, 'This is what I've been looking for and nobody's told me about it.'"

An authentic life being lived in faith is the best catechesis, notes Pat Stankus, religious education consultant for the Diocese of Austin and executive director of the diocesan synod. "There are no easy answers, no perfect programs, no specific approaches that will work. People who live their faith and are a light are the most effective means to bringing people back. Others see them and want what they have. Faith is caught, not taught, not manipulated. God works."

For many Catholics such as Mark, who in the past few years has dropped home for a visit on a handful of Sundays, there are no shortcuts for walking the journey. All historical and institutional arguments aside, he concedes, "I know there are individuals in the Catholic Church who personify the love and compassion of Jesus. And I'd consider going back at some point. It's not totally out of the realm of possibility."

"Ultimately it has to be an individual realization," returnee Kondrat emphasizes, "something that someone really wants. A person has to see the hole in his or her spiritual heart-and be looking for something to fill that void."