People have many reasons for belonging to the Catholic Church. Most are good, yet some seem weak:
*“Sunday morning without Mass would seem a little empty.”
*“I was raised Catholic. It’s all I know.”
*“I’m not sure there’s a God, but I’d rather err by believing than be surprised when I die.”
These aren’t bad reasons, but they may not stand up to the temptations of modern life. They’re like the house built on sand. When the storm came, “it fell—and great was its fall!” (see Matthew 7:24-27).
The storms are many and may include disillusionment and anger about the clergy sex-abuse scandals; dissatisfaction with the limited role of women; judging the Church as too wishy-washy, politically involved, rich or concerned about rules; and hurt from negative personal experiences (e.g., “The Church wouldn’t bury my father”).
Just as there are mixed reasons for remaining Catholic, the reasons for leaving the Church range from serious decisions of conscience to apathy or busyness. For some, their faith hasn’t been rooted in the deep soil of a personal relationship with Christ and an understanding of the teachings of the Church as relevant to their daily lives.
The practice of the faith may be seen as only a cultural commitment with no roots once a young adult leaves home. Sometimes people aren’t welcomed when they approach the Church for marriage or other sacraments. Our Church must walk a delicate balance between staking out an identity that includes upholding unpopular values and welcoming all with unconditional love as Jesus did.
We’ve been thinking about these thorny conundrums lately as we’ve listened to folks who have left the Church and others who have remained or returned to the active practice of Catholicism. These are some of the more significant reasons we’ve heard about why people stay.
The communion of saints
Many in the Church have encountered holy people over the years, some deceased but others still alive, who’ve been powerful witnesses of lives lived for others?true followers of Jesus. Their integrity and sacrifices have been such strong influences that we’re drawn to the person, the spirituality and the community?the Church?that inspired them.
Nobody looks for hardship, illness or a life crisis, but few escape adversity in life. As unwelcome as suffering is, sometimes it drives us to ask the ultimate questions about life’s meaning. God often touches us during difficult times, and we come to understand that life is about more than collecting stuff or even surrounding ourselves with loving people. God breaks in through prayer, circumstances and other people who carry a message of God’s redeeming love.
The Catholic Church has a rich tradition of combining the Word with actions and symbols in its seven sacraments. This reflects an understanding of human nature and how ordinary things?water, bread, oil, rings, words of forgiveness or commitment, and human touch?help us experience God’s love.
Many Christian churches offer their own forms of baptism, communion, confirmation, marriage and even confession/absolution. But few acknowledge the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as Catholics do.
Many people have told us that they were attracted to the Catholic Church because its heritage goes back to Jesus and there’s a unity of belief around the world. Of course, unity doesn’t mean sameness. People from various cultural backgrounds pray in their own languages and use symbols that are relevant to them, yet the same faith is being expressed through a unity of beliefs and rites.
Service and social justice
No human institution perfectly cares for the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized. We still have far to go to become a truly inclusive and caring Church, one that fully embraces the demands of Catholic social teaching. Still, the Catholic Church has perhaps the most extensive social service network in the world?tending to and living among the poor, coordinating aid in times of crisis, and challenging all members to live more simply and help their neighbors because that is what Jesus taught.
Faith is not just about feel-good friendships. In fact, tested faith often pushes us to stand apart from the crowd and take an unpopular stance for the gospel. Still, living a Christian life isn’t about being a “lone ranger.” Being in community with other believers, we can pool our resources and support each other. Sometimes the different personalities, political views and needs of community may feel like a curse. Working out these differences respectfully and lovingly is part of the work of salvation.
‘Lord, to whom can we go?’ (John 6:68)
This world holds good people from a variety of religious backgrounds. These include holy Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Christians of all denominations, and good and loving people who aren’t affiliated with any religion. Does God love them? Of course. Perhaps the reason that God didn’t claim a name beyond “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14) is that God didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a particular gender, denomination or race.
In the end, one of the reasons that we?Jim and Susan?are Catholic is that it’s where God has called us and spoken to us. There may be many routes to God, but the Catholic Church is where we have experienced God’s touch. There may be Church policies with which we disagree, but we’d find human foibles and failings no matter what religion we followed.
Some of the best and worst things in human history were done in the name of church, God and religion. We must align ourselves with the best and repudiate the worst. The challenge is to be humble enough to remember that we’re not in charge and that we’re all imperfect sinners, still loved by God. As a community inspired by the life of Jesus, faith calls us to devote ourselves to the good of others.
Bottom line? Love.
Jim and Susan Vogt have four adult children and live in Covington, Kentucky. Jim directs the Marianist Social Justice Collaborative. Susan speaks and writes on marriage, parenting and spirituality. Learn more at www.susanvogt.net.
Charlotte welcomes another grandchild and secretly worries that Kelsey Marie will remain unbaptized. Kevin and Sarah haven’t been going to Mass. They say they don’t feel they belong and that Holy Family Parish doesn’t feel like a “holy family.”
Charlotte is delighted when Sarah asks to use the family baptismal gown. Kelsey’s arrival has rekindled her parents’ faith and awakened a desire for a faith community. Yet both Kevin and Sarah feel out of touch with their parish. How can they make meaningful connections in the community?
Parish staff and active parishioners can look to life moments (e.g., weddings, funerals and baptisms) as opportunities to invite people to get involved. Extend a sincere welcome and follow up with a phone call, encouraging them to participate with you.
Newcomers can join parish activities that attract them. Look for anything that fits your lifestyle and background. If you’re a CPA, join the finance commission. If you’re a young mom, get involved in preschool religious education. If you can sing, join the choir.
Feeling welcomed, however, requires some determination and effort. If you feel like a stranger at Sunday Mass, your aversion to the cold shoulder might lessen your desire to practice the faith.
Parish groups can pray for opportunities to widen the circle of love. Prayer cannot be underestimated as a powerful force against all the negative energy that keeps people from feeling a part of God’s family.
We all desire to belong, to be part of the community. We want people to know our names and notice when we’re not at Sunday Mass. It’s not enough to suggest that our daughter, brother or friend go to church. We need to invite them to Mass and go with them. We must help one another make connections with parishioners and stay with the effort. Remember that strong faith requires strong roots in fertile soil. Commit to staying engaged in parish life until a good root system has been established.
Charlotte looks forward to Sundays when her family joins her for Mass. She’s pleased that Sarah has made friends with other moms with toddlers. Kevin even missed a Saturday of golf to attend the diocesan men’s conference.
As Charlotte tends her garden, she thinks about the parable of the sower. Seeds grow in fertile soil. Holy Family Parish is that fertile soil of hospitality and community, and her family finally feels at home in God’s house.