I heard a startling new statistic recently: 30-million Americans call themselves “Ex-Catholics.” One in ten Americans have walked away from the faith. Many were likely baptized, experienced First Communion and even underwent Confirmation. Yet, something or someone drove them from the Church.
As a once fallen-away Catholic, I understand the wilderness journey we can all experience with faith. Being Catholic is not easy. There are rules to live by. Our society celebrates rule-breakers, mavericks, go-getters. Self-reliance is a powerful barrier between living Catholic and living a secular humanist existence. Our guilt can play an even bigger part in keeping us from facing up to God. Easier to stuff our sins deep inside our beings and go about life without a care as to our own salvation.
But in times of trouble, pain and suffering, even the most agnostic person experiences a need to heal a broken place. Stepping back into the light is “an about-turn into real humanity,” as Pope Benedict so eloquently put it. “One cannot become a Christian by birth, but only by rebirth.” In that rebirth, the broken place can be healed, but only by the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.
I helped set up a house blessing with my spiritual director, a gifted Jesuit. A friend requested it. Her husband had committed suicide in the garage of their home just before the holidays. This woman was baptized Catholic, but had not practiced for years. When approached, I jumped at the chance to facilitate this special ceremony sensing God’s presence in the request. The ceremony was solemn and heart wrenching. Many tears were shed by the 20 people gathered to support this woman in her hour of need. Especially when Father burned incense in the thurible in the garage and uttered the healing prayers.
My spiritual director and I both agree these moments of bringing God back into the lives of former Catholics are a powerful way we can assist the Holy Spirit as she knocks at the door of the unfaithful in hopes of an “about-turn.”
Traditio, doctrine, dogma, the Magisterium, the infallibility of the Pope, the Blessed Virgin… All are big stumbling blocks for many ex-Catholics. After the house blessing, the woman’s mother came up and wanted to talk about the Catholic Church and her issues with some of its teachings. There’s the rub for most former Catholics. Many find our faith too rigid and inflexible. Or just don’t understand the tenets of the faith because of a flawed, unloving explanation. In the Gospel according to John, several disciples departed after hearing what it meant to become a true follower. As a priest friend puts it, “not everyone who hears the Good News is going to accept it.”
One day later I read about a media effort to urge Catholics to “Come Home” to the Church (click on post title to see the video). An estimated 92,000 inactive Catholics have returned to the Church in the last year due to this TV advertising campaign. The three TV spots highlight the rich history of the Catholic Church, the power of redemption to transform our lives and the reasons why some people leave the church and why so many feel the need to come home. Some parishes even conduct classes to better educate people on what it means to be an active Catholic. A great evangelizing opportunity awaits if we can only help ex-Catholics to see the Catholic Church as home.
But barriers must be overcome. In Monika Hellwig's book "Understanding Catholicism" she writes, the Catholic Church puzzles outsiders and embarrasses many insiders: “They express a tension that is not an accident of history that has happened to arise in our present cultural situation The tension is the necessary condition of being the Church in the unredeemed world.”
As a Catholic, we believe in practicing what was taught by Jesus to his apostles and by the apostles to all of us as part of the apostolic tradition. Our Catholic faith mission statement is in Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.” But as Pope Benedict points out, Jesus mingled with sinners to “show what true ‘holiness’ is: not separation, but union; not judgment, but redeeming love.” Jesus laid the foundation for the Catholic Church when he handed the keys to Peter and his successors. With humility, love and grace, the transformational power of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture, which has consistently guided Catholics for 2,000 years, can open the hearts of many if we follow Christ’s example by applying not judgment but redeeming love as we work to bring all the lost sheep back into the fold.