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Reaching Out to Inactive Catholics

An estimated 17 million Catholics in the United States are baptized but inactive. Most of these people consider themselves Catholic, checking that as their religion on a hospital admission form, for example.

Many Catholic parishes and dioceses now sponsor “Come Home” or similar programs, inviting men and women who feel estranged from the Church of their Baptism to resume practicing their faith. Buses, billboards, parish signs, radio and TV spots announce such programs.

The entire Church has recently begun to see this outreach as a priority. These men and women are not some distant “they” but are family members, co-workers or friends.

Listening Is Crucial

These outreach programs all begin with listening to people. For 15 years Carrie Kemp has been working with inactive Catholics. For the past six years she has run a Come Home program at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her book Catholics Can Come Home Again: A Guide for the Journey of Reconciliation With Inactive Catholics (Paulist Press, 2001) recounts what she has learned.

She writes: “We call them alienated, former, lapsed, fallen away, but only rarely do we call them to talk with us, to tell us their stories, to know their goodness and their pain. Unrecognized, the millions who are alienated from our Catholic family become a gaping wound in the Body of Christ—a hemorrhage of anger, frustration, pain, and rejection. Without opportunity for reconciliation and healing, ongoing struggles with the Church eventually erode into spiritual deadness, isolation and hopelessness.”

Later she explains, “The Church needs to be a place where we can not only bring our burdens, but where we can sort them out, finding acceptance during our reflection and the encouragement to continue on the journey.”

Believers Need to Ask Forgiveness

Because we, the Church’s members, are human, we sometimes fail to live as Jesus’ followers. You and I may have caused some of the bitterness inactive Catholics feel.

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World says that believers can unintentionally promote atheism. The bishops wrote, “To the extent that [Christians] neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion” (#19).

If scandal from believers can foster atheism, the sins of individual Catholics can certainly prompt others to become inactive. Pope John Paul II says conversion is a first step toward reconciliation. In On the Coming Third Millennium (1994), he wrote:

“Hence it is appropriate that, as the Second Millennium of Christianity draws to a close, the Church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel and, instead of offering the world the witness of a life inspired by the values of faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal” (#33).

In his 1975 apostolic letter Evangelization in the Modern World, Pope Paul VI wrote, “People today are more impressed by witness than by teachers, and if they listen to these it is because they also bear witness” (#41).

Based on research done by the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Evangelization, in January 2000 Bishop Michael Saltarelli of Wilmington, Delaware, stated that most Catholics drifted away from the Church because they:

  • Did not experience God’s presence in their Catholic community,
  • Did not experience warm, personal, caring relationships in encounters with Catholics,
  • Saw Catholicism as complex and unrelated to their lives,
  • Experienced hurt from clergy or lay Catholics,
  • Came into conflict with Church teachings,
  • Were easily misled by people who attack the Church,
  • Were in marriages not recognized by the Church,
  • Got busy and did not take the time to get involved, or
  • Relocated but never reconnected with another Catholic parish.
Four Things Each of Us Can Do

1. Allow inactive Catholics to report their feelings and experiences honestly. Listening does not mean approval of everything you hear.

2. Learn about local outreach efforts to inactive Catholics.

3. Ask yourself, “Does my daily life foster faith in Jesus Christ and membership in the Catholic Church?”

4. Invite computer-using inactive Catholics to visit, a Web site designed for them.

This is part of St. Anthony Messenger’s online communication efforts. The site has an interactive component (based on the above reasons), a question-and-answer resource area, a means of locating local programs for inactive Catholics, links to and specialized services such as the National Office for Post-Abortion Reconciliation and Healing—and much more.

In sharing our faith, God “causes the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7). God counts on us, however, to model lives open to grace and to the conversion we all need.—P.M.

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