Catholic wife, mother, author, mentor and parishioner of St. Anthony, Milwaukee
When I first began working on my latest book, "When's God Gonna Call Me Back?," I sent out a request for testimonies from people who had left the Church. I asked them three questions: 1.Why did you leave? 2.What kept you way? 3.What brought you back? As you can imagine, the responses were quite an eye-opener. These brave individuals shared with me some of the most difficult thing they have ever told anyone, and I was both humbled by them and proud of them for their courage.
As I poured over the e-mails, letters, and interview notes, a recurring thought came to me: Where were the people in the pews? Where were the people in the pews when the dozens and dozens of people I interviewed were leaving the Church? Of the nearly 100 people who responded to my query, only a very few had the experience of someone trying to stop them. Most of the time, they simply walked out the exit door without interference.
Take Jasper for example. Jasper (not his real name) had a relationship with the Catholic Church that came in fits and starts. After his Confirmation, he wandered in and out of the Church; mostly out. At about the age of 30, his conscience began to bother him, and he somehow got the feeling that he needed to receive reconciliation and go back to Mass. One Saturday afternoon, he attempted to go to reconciliation at the nearest Catholic Church. But, he'd been away so long that things had changed and he was confused. He watched the other people waiting there, but still couldn't figure out what to do. So he left, went home, and cried. He never went back.
Now, maybe the people there didn't know that Jasper was having trouble. Or, maybe they did. If we saw someone standing around, looking around, and seemingly not knowing what to do in Church, would we approach him or her and offer assistance? Would we strike up a conversation and offer encouragement?
What if we were at a party or a family gathering and someone began criticizing the Church? Would we do our best to charitably defend her, or would we simply nod our heads and continue listening? What if someone close to us was deciding to leave the Church? Would we try to convince them to stay? Would we see it as our responsibility to lovingly evangelize and re-evangelize those around us?
One thing I noticed while working on "When's God Gonna Call Me Back?," is that folks often think that this is a clergy problem. They convince themselves that the clergy are at fault for people leaving the Church, and they convince themselves that the clergy are responsible for bringing them back. So, they wash their hands of the whole affair and cluck their tongues when they see empty pews on Sunday.
The clergy are responsible, but only in part. The other part belongs to us, and it's a huge part. More often than not, we have direct contact on a day-to-day basis with people who have left or are considering leaving the Church. We have those spontaneous opportunities to offer a word of encouragement, to direct someone who seems confused, to explain a misconception, and to make the faith more inviting to others by living it with joy, enthusiasm, and conviction. Nearly all people who have left and come back to the Church credit their return to a simple invitation from someone they knew. We are the someone they knew.
Marge Fenelon is author of the recently-released "When's God Gonna Call Me Back?" and "When's God Gonna Show Up?" both published by Liguori Publications. Her next book will be released by Our Sunday Visitor in Fall 2011. Visit her website at: www.margefenelon.com.