Recovering Stray Catholics
by Fr John McCloskey
One of the monumental missions of the Catholic Church in the next millennium will be to recover our lost sheep and help them to "revert." Recovering Catholics are those who have returned after having fallen away. There are many millions of these prodigal sons. We have to be the merciful father who rushes out to meet them half way and then escorts them back home to the sacramental feast. We are the Emergency Medical Technicians of the faith, called to perform cardiac resuscitation. We must also prepare to be care givers of long-term rehabilitation. Providentially, our fallen-away Catholic relatives, friends, or colleagues are normally only one good confession away from reconciliation with Christ here on earth: one heartbeat away from entrance into the Father's loving embrace. We have to stay with them till the end with our prayer, sacrifice, and friendship. We can worry about Purgatory afterwards. The Church provides the means to help souls even after the particular judgment.
The Lord tells us that "For the Son of Man came to save what was lost. What do you think? If a man have a hundred sheep, and one of them stray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the mountains, and go in search of the one that has strayed? And if he happens to find it... he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray. Even so, it is not the will of your Father in heaven that a single one of these little ones should perish" (Matthew 18:11-14). The Catechism of the Catholic Church does not address the loss of these Catholics or give any advice as how to win them back. Perhaps it is because the Church must trust in the apostolic spirit of her sons and daughters to catch them again them in our nets before they slip away forever.
We have every confidence that at some point in the next millennium, we will enter into what our Holy Father John Paul II calls a "new springtime." We anticipate a re-evangelization in our country; in fact, this movement is already underway . One need only look at the multiplicity of faithful Catholic initiatives in education, journalism, and family life to be convinced of this. Hundreds of thousands are joyfully entering into the barque of Peter (see Scepter booklets #197 & 209) as is evidenced by the great growth in recent years in convert Catholics who have been prepared through the diocesan RCIA programs. In addition there are more and more well-known persons from every profession who are embracing the Faith publicly. In the next several decades we will see a large increase of priestly vocations of select young men, reversing thirty-five years of decline in the U.S. The Church in America will belatedly join the rest of the Church which has enjoyed surging vocations during the pontificate of John Paul II. For example, vocations are up 300% in Africa and S.E. Asia. These priests will possess a deep piety, sound doctrine, and zeal for souls and will be imbued with the vision of the Second Vatican Council as implemented by John Paul II (see Scepter booklet #211). However, as our Lord implies, this future "civilization of love" will not begin to come to fulfillment until the Heavenly Father has received back many, if not the great majority, of the sheep who have strayed. The Father loves them, the Good Shepherd tells us, even more than those of us who have been faithful. How merciful is our God with his children! He is counting on us to be His instruments in this great task and He wants them all back.
Let's look at the present situation. Out of approximately sixty million nominal Catholics only 25% or so actually practice their faith by attending Sunday Mass regularly and confession yearly. The other 45 million Catholics are lukewarm (we know what Our Lord said about that!). They are simply "sacramental" Catholics at key moments of their existence: baptism, marriage, wake, and funeral (hatched, matched, and dispatched). Of course, there are probably millions of former Catholics who are not even on the books . I am not referring here to the typical college-age student or young adult who "questions" or takes a "vacation " from Catholic practice -- he who chooses to pursue the supposed pleasures of immorality, forever young and healthy, until marriage and family awaken him from his Cartesian dream into the reality of work and children. I am not referring to the couch potato Catholic who lacks the will to repent and change his life for the time being. He prefers to simply put off his confession until shortly before death or the Final Judgment, whichever comes first. He may be in for a nasty surprise.
Many millions of others, however, have openly and apparently definitively left the Church. They do not profess or live a prayerful sacramental life. They do not behave according to the teachings of the Church or see these teachings as authoritative or divine. Some merely drift off into a comfortable American bourgeois existence of work during the weekday, and the life of entertainment in the evening and on weekends. Vacations each year provide them additional places and pleasures until death does them part. Others pay lip service to the Christian creed by worshipping at mainstream liberal Protestant Churches (talk about jumping into a sinking ship!). Millions of others have joined Evangelical and Fundamentalist denominations, or strange sects and cults, or free-standing mega-churches. They have discovered an emptiness in their lives that is filled by various forms of non-Catholic religious enthusiasms. This movement is all in the great American subjective spirit of the individual as the sole arbiter of Sacred Scripture and his own conscience. "To worship the God of your choice," as one of our former Presidents puts it, is the American way of life, right alongside the mythical separation of Church and State. "They sing of and worship themselves," as our proto-typical American poet Walt Whitman might have put it.
Not one of the readers of this article does not have a friend, relative, colleague, or acquaintance who does not fit into one of the these categories. How many tears have been shed, hearts broken, voices raised, nights of sleep lost, marriages ruined, and families split apart since the 1960's over the defection of literally millions of Catholics? Many have left, as they say, after "twelve years of Catholic education" and appear to have shed their Catholic beliefs as easily as taking off one's shoes. I believe this exodus to be unprecedented in the history of the Church. Large numbers were certainly lost due to persecution and martyrdom in the Roman empire prior to the Edict of Milan. Others disappeared in large swatches of the Middle East and North Africa due to the Islamic jihads. Millions were evidently lost -- although who really knows -- under the ruthless atheistic Communist regime of the Chinese. However, the experience of America and other English-speaking countries is unique in peacetime in any country with a large Catholic population. What is particularly troubling for those of us with a historical viewpoint is to think of the sacrifices of those generations of faithful Catholics who both lived and handed down their Faith under difficult circumstances only to see it tossed away by their descendants. They lived that Faith heroically only to see it, from their perspective of eternal life, discarded as not "relevant" to their offspring. We may take solace in the fact that these faithful Catholics must be interceding before God for their children, or their children's children. God will hear them.
Let us look at the causes for these defections. In supernatural endeavors, we must understand the root of the problem. Let us treat the disease, not the symptoms.
Why have these people left the Church? It is, first of all, a mystery. We cannot peer into their heads or their hearts. Ultimately they are responsible before God for their decisions. The Catechism, however, gives us some clues: "Ignorance of Christ and his Gospel, bad example given by others, enslavement to one's passions, assertion of a mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience, rejection of the Church's authority and her teaching, lack of conversion and of charity: these can be at the source of errors of judgment... in moral conduct" (CCC 1792). Let us be unflinchingly clear about this while retaining all understanding, mercy, and forgiveness. The great majority of people who leave the Church do so because of moral faults. They are not ready to submit their sins to God and to the Church's judgment and mercy through the sacrament of penance. This unwillingness to ask for God's forgiveness for having offended Him leads to rationalization and self-justification. Over time, this will lead to a loss of the virtues of faith, hope, and charity necessary for eternal life. The culpability of these moral faults may be mitigated by religious ignorance, the result of a decades-long failure of the faithful to properly catechize. God does not call us to judge but rather to understand, call, and welcome back the fallen-away. Knowing ourselves to be sinners, this should not surprise us. We should generally be praying for conversion of their hearts first. Their minds will follow.
Right at the beginning we have to emphasize the importance of our truly having a relationship of friendship with the potential revert, even if he be a relative. Friendship is a special word with a sacred meaning of "a sincere gift of self" to the other. True friendship means sharing the best we have without reserve forever. For a Catholic, this means sharing Christ and His Church. We are only interested in our friend's happiness here on earth and his destination in eternal life. We have no axes to grind, ulterior motives, or hidden agendas. We do not come to judge or condemn, analyze, or disdain but rather to help a friend. The Church exists ultimately to forgive sins through the application of Christ's merits through the sacraments. We want them to truly believe that "to live is Christ, and to die, is gain."
Perhaps the first approach to helping our friend to revert will be to ask him in a friendly conversation why he left the Church in the first place. We know, of course, there is no such thing as a "good reason" to leave the Church. There are plenty of bad ones, however, and our friend will provide a few. You will have to address his responses carefully, patiently diagnosing his motivations. Are they intellectual, or moral, or simply ignorance? You will most likely encounter the normal assortment of emotions such as anger, rancor, personal resentments, bruised feelings, and supposed slights. These reactions will be accompanied by shopworn excuses and rationalizations. You, as well as I, have heard them all. Your friend must know that you are truly sympathetic and understanding while at the same time uncompromising in your defense of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church. Once you have heard him out, and this may take many hours during numerous conversations, you can begin to address his problems or objections. You will do so only after having seriously meditated upon them during your prayer and after having asked for the Holy Spirit's guidance. You want to be able to convincingly "give a reason for the hope which is within you." This hope has, for the moment, been lost in your friend. This may well also involve your own study of the particular teachings of the Church to which your friend objects so that you can explain them clearly and attractively. You may also want to consult with a learned Catholic who can point you in the right direction regarding resources and give you the wisdom of his own experience in rescuing lost sheep. I am assuming a modicum of good will on your friend's part. He must at least be partially willing to listen to what you have to say. His heart and mind must be somewhat open to the possibility that he may have chosen the wrong path. His willingness will depend to a large extent on the depth of your friendship and what Cardinal Newman referred to as your "personal influence" upon him.
He will certainly pay much more attention if he sees you are a happy, well-adjusted Catholic. He will see your human frailties and defects, but he will be impressed at your effort to live an exemplary Christian life. He will see the connection between the interior and exterior life of a Catholic by observing your prayer, frequent confession and Mass, and Scripture reading. Potential reverts love to complain of "hypocrisy" in the lives of Christians. They are sometimes right. We have to help them understand that the best way to judge an institution is by the people who strive to live up to its ideals, not by the people who do not. That is why the Church provides us the saints as the institution's role models. With God's grace the saints have succeeded in the imitation of Christ in this life -- and not without tremendous lifelong struggle. Sainthood is the job description for a serious Catholic. If our friend sees that sanctity is our ideal, he will pay attention, and the Holy Spirit will act through us to call him to repentance.
You may have to gradually reintroduce him to Catholic sacramental and liturgical practice. Bring him to Mass; make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament; explain the meaning of Catholic customs and sacramentals to him. He probably never lived or understood these Catholic practices in the first place. You will want to see that he has good Catholic books and pamphlets. Expose him to websites like catholicity.com, ewtn.com, and catholic.com. Catholic radio and television programming are becoming more available. These resources will answer many of his questions and reveal to him -- often for the first time -- the "splendor of the truth." Introduce him to your devout Catholic friends at social events and family functions.
As you delve deeper into his life and he opens up, you may find there is a marital situation, past or present, that has to be resolved. He may never have had his first Confession, first Holy Communion, or Confirmation. Perhaps he has assisted at an abortion or been involved in witchcraft or the occult. You may also need to refer him to a good Catholic psychologist or psychiatrist. His problems may require a team approach.
Like you, I have encountered these situations and many others when dealing with my potential revert friends and relatives. Satan has had a successful century and has left his ugly mark everywhere in our "culture of death." Assume nothing about your friend other than that he is a lost sheep. Jesus is eager to bring him back into the fold, regardless of how far he has strayed or how low he has fallen. Show no surprise. There but for the grace of God go I, or perhaps went I!
At some point you will to have him "show yourself to the priest" as the Gospel tells us. You may want to find a priest friend of yours whom you know is eager to hear confessions, give spiritual direction, and a hug to this prodigal son. You may want to fill the priest in on the particulars of how your friend got to this point. Then let him apply God's saving grace in the Sacrament of Confession and any other sacramental ministrations that are necessary to bring him home.
What if your efforts do not bear fruit? Your friend continues on his run away from God and towards perdition, for whatever variety of bad reasons. "It ain't over till it's over" should be your attitude. You continue to pray , to sacrifice, to give example, to let your friend know that you love him unconditionally in the Lord. You will always be there for him. God tells us that He gives us whatever we ask for in prayer, and we are asking for our friend's return to the fold. God will answer us in His own way and in His own time. While we are overjoyed with the repentance of one lost sheep, we know there are millions more to round up. In the meantime we have the holy satisfaction and consolation of the words of Scripture in the epistle of St. James 5:18-20: "My brethren, if anyone of you strays from the truth and someone brings him back, he ought to know that he who causes a sinner to brought back from his misguided way, will save his soul from death, and will cover a multitude of sins." If only for selfish reasons, the above promise is a powerful incentive to continue to search for the lost sheep.
The Holy Spirit is particularly active in these years. Many people are realizing that they are being presented with an ultimate binary choice: God or Self. As Blessed Josemaria Escriva once taught: "The Lord has shown us this refinement of Love: he has let us conquer the world for him. He is always so humble that he has wished to limit himself to making it possible... To us he has granted the most agreeable part: taking action and gaining the victory." The agreeable part for us is to act as God's instruments in calling back stray Catholics to the Father's embrace.
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