By Fran Lavelle
I am known to shop online as I have a minor book addiction. I was thinking the other day how much my on line purveyor actually knows about me. They pay attention to the purchases I make and every time I log in they have suggestions for me. I surrendered to the Madison Avenue machine of clever marketing years ago because l live in the country and quite honestly like the convenience shopping online. One practice they employ is asking for feedback about your purchase. Was it everything I had hoped it would be? And, by chance if I needed to return it they want to know why.
I was thinking about the people who have left the church and it occurred to me that we don’t do an exit survey to find out why folks have come to a decision to leave. As “church people” we fear they are going to tell us that a priest, brother, sister or lay person did something or said something that drove them away. To be sure, that has happened. Perhaps an exit interview is a bit extreme. It could create a vulnerable and uncomfortable situation for all parties involved, but there is much that could be learned from such an endeavor.
What are we saying when we do not follow up when a member of our parish stops attending Mass? In Luke’s gospel (Luke 15:4-7), Jesus gives us the following parable: “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.
If we are not looking for the lost sheep who is? There is a part of me that wants to see the Body of Christ reconciled and healed right now. Another part of me understands the journey for each of us is different. I think about the prodigal son story often. His journey was his teacher. He had to leave and lose it all to understand that which he had possessed all along.
Somewhere, deep within, he knew he could go home. I think of my own journey and how I got where I am today. I had a few years in college where I didn’t have the best attendance record. My mother refers to it as my “fallen away period.” How ironic that I would end up ministering to college students for the better part of my adult life. I realized many years after college that my in spotty Mass attendance served a purpose.
When I got back to going to Mass weekly, I came to it as an adult. It was a priority because I made it one. What about others who no longer go to Mass. I know my story, but do I know theirs? I don’t mean an “all up in your business” knowing. Rather, I mean an understanding kind of knowing. Maybe that’s the point of my rumination. Maybe what we need when people leave the church is not so much to understand the nitty-gritty of why, but to have a chance to say that we hope one day they will feel at home again.
Like my story, some folks make choices about faith for many reasons. I have friends who, prior to getting married 40 plus years ago, decided that her Catholic faith did not sit well with his Church of God family so they got married and became Methodist. After three and a half decades away from the church she decided she needed to revisit the faith of her youth. Her separation from the Eucharist all of those years was palatable.
Their children were grown and her need to appease his family had lessened. She made the journey back to her Catholic faith. She returned home and eventually over the course of next several years her husband, daughters and even a son in law have joined her at the Eucharistic table. I recount this story to say we all experience faith as a journey. Some of us are dutiful and faithful and never wavier, never doubt or question. The path is straight and the goal remains always in sight. For others we cannot escape the detours, road blocks and meandering road.
A friend from Mobile is working with a program, Catholics Returning Home. It is one of 12 model programs listed in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) directory “A Time to Listen … A Time to Heal” and is used throughout the U.S. and other countries. It was developed by a lay person, Sally Mew, and has been in use at parishes across the country for some 34 years now.
If your parish is intentional about having a ministry for returning Catholics, we applaud you. If your parish does not currently have a program, the Office of Faith Formation is willing to help you find a program that meets the needs of your community.
(Fran Lavelle is Co-Director of the Department of Evangelization and Faith Formation.)