When Julie’s 20-year-old son left the Church, she and her husband prayed a lot. In fact, their entire family, which includes six children age 7 through 20, prayed a lot. And it was hard. While in ninth grade, Julie’s son participated in a confirmation class that was not in alignment with the teachings of the Church, although she didn’t know it at the time. Soon thereafter, her diocese discovered the problem and rectified it; but it was too late for Julie’s son: The false teachings confused him and turned him off to the Catholic Church entirely.

The following year, Julie, a stay-at-home mom, and her husband, a disc-drive engineer, asked their son to go through the newly initiated and truly-Catholic confirmation program at their northern Colorado parish, and he did. Unfortunately, his hostility toward the Church ran too deep, and he chose not to be confirmed. Then he left the Church. In fact, he was so confused that he no longer wanted to be Christian, let alone Catholic. Julie was left wondering what to do.

“I prayed [about it], and the clearest answer I got was to back off, love him, and let him figure it out on his own. That was hard to do. We have talked with many friends and priests, and although they have offered to speak with him, he has declined any efforts on their parts. We still pray for him daily. It’s like a part of us is missing.”

Julie isn’t the only parent worried about an adult child who has left the Catholic Church. A February 2010 study conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that one in four young adults ages 18-29 are unaffiliated with any religious denomination, describing their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”

Marsha’s son made a conscious decision to leave the Church. Marsha, a former public-relations executive from central Montana, divorced when her only son was in college. But the reason her son left the Church had nothing to do with the divorce; it was the result of extensive study of Scripture from a historical-critical viewpoint as part of his pursuit of a religious studies degree. His studies led him to conclude that Jesus is not divine, but rather an important yet completely human teacher.

“I felt like I had been a complete failure as a parent, since I was unable to convey my faith to my son, despite years of Catholic education, contact with good and holy priests, and an active life in the parish,” said Marsha.

Her son’s departure from the faith was a point of great conflict between them for some time. Then, years later, Marsha and her son sat down for a frank discussion about the matter. They came to the decision that their relationship was more important than her son’s non-practice of the Catholic faith.

“It came down to our saying, ‘Do I choose to have a relationship with you? Or do I choose not to have a relationship with you because of this?’ I chose to have the relationship,” she explained.

“I am and undoubtedly always will be a Catholic,” she said. “But [my son’s decision] has helped me let go of rigidity, which has allowed me to develop a much greater trust that God is in charge of our lives and it’s not up to me to decide how, when or where another person encounters God.”

Stephanie discovered much the same when her adult children left the faith. She’s a freelance writer from the Midwest and a mother of five. She divorced her first husband of nearly two decades, an abusive alcoholic, and has been happily married to her second husband for the past nine years. Her first two children began their exit from the Church during their high school years, when they became involved in youth activities at an interdenominational church because their parish had no youth activities. Her third son is married to a Catholic and goes to Mass occasionally, but he initially developed a distaste for the Catholic Church when he saw that his mother was not welcomed into their parish because of the divorce. Stephanie found a new home in a new parish that welcomed her, but it was too late to change her son’s mind. Her fourth child, a daughter, left the faith after her first year at a Catholic college. Shortly thereafter, she became an atheist and has not had contact with the family since.

Stephanie’s youngest child, a son, attends minor seminary and is considering the priesthood. All of this has caused Stephanie to not only hold onto, but deepen, her own faith.

“I have grown closer to Christ,” she said. “We have suffered tremendously [as a family], and in many ways, because of this, I pray more, attend Mass more, and offer up my sufferings for my children. I refuse to pull away from God and from my Church — both give me and my husband such great comfort.”

Licensed clinical counselor Kevin Prendergast insists that keeping the door open to communication and relationships is essential when an adult child leaves the Church. He counsels many such families in his Cincinnati practice.

“We have to remember that faith is a gift from God,” he pointed out. “I don’t think we Catholics realize that doubt and searching can be a stage in our faith journey. When our children are searching, we have to validate that searching as part of their journey.”

Prendergast recommends that parents take a non-reactive stance of patient listening when their adult children begin to question or even exit the faith. Approaching them with aggressive evangelization or emotional arguments may further encourage their departure and cause more division.

“Opening yourself to dialogue doesn’t mean you agree with your adult child or that you’re ready to abandon your own faith,” he said.

On the contrary, Prendergast recommends a deepening of parents’ own faith as testimony to the truth. “Our living witness can be more powerful than any words. Show your children that your faith means the world to you and that you wouldn’t give it up for anything,” he said.

Prendergast offers St. Monica as a symbol of hope to parents with non-practicing children. She prayed for St. Augustine for 30 years without apparent results. In the end, it was St. Ambrose who directly converted St. Augustine, not his mother, although her prayers were instrumental in the process.

“Take a developmental perspective,” Prendergast said. “Realize that this is something they have to work through and be open to the possibility that you may not be able to reach your child, but that God may be able to through someone else.”

Both Julie and Stephanie draw great strength from the same Scripture passage, using it as a source of courage and as a reminder to pray and sacrifice fervently, remain open to communication and relationship, and to listen patiently to a questioning child: “Train up your child in the way they should go, and they will never depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

“Ultimately, we have to hand our children over to the Blessed Mother,” says Father Michael Lightner, director of campus ministry for the Newman Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “She is our greatest advocate; she’s the one who crushes the serpent.”

In his work, Father Lightner frequently sees young people who have stepped away from the faith.

He offers a three-step plan of action for parents awaiting the return of a prodigal son or daughter.

“Pray,” he advises. “Get on your knees and pray together, authentically and humbly before God for your child and beg his mercy on him or her. Second, hope in the Lord. Never lose hope that your child will return to the faith. Third, don’t worry. Instead, open your heart and surrender everything to him.”

Father Lightner especially advocates what he calls the “three keys”: reconciliation, adoration and Mass. Reconciliation in order to seek forgiveness for whatever part, knowingly or unknowingly, parents have played in the departure of their child from the faith and the other two for wisdom, courage and strength to endure.

Rhonda, a New Hampshire mother of three grown children and a secular Carmelite, can testify to the power of prayer for prodigals. Both her husband and youngest daughter have benefited from her prayers for their conversion, and reversion, respectively.  

“When my youngest daughter was 15, she announced to me one day, very calmly, that she didn’t know if she believed in God or not. We spoke for quite awhile, but needless to say, I was very concerned. She had always been our hardest, somewhat of a rebel,” Rhonda explains.

Her daughter began staying out late, letting her grades drop, and would have stopped attending Mass if it hadn’t been required of her. She was never in serious trouble, but at that time, even though she was in the gifted program at school and very intelligent, she decided that studying was not important.

One day, Rhonda heard about a healing service. She’d always been skeptical of such things, but something urged her to go anyway. She went, and asked for prayers for her falling-away daughter rather than for herself. 

“In just a matter of months,” she recalls, “my daughter turned her entire life around. She once again became an honor student, kept all the house rules, loved going to Mass and even got a job. It was amazing. She began to sing in the folk group at Mass, as she is very musically gifted. You would never have known it was the same girl.”

Today, Rhonda’s daughter is a 38-year-old mother, is married to a wonderful man and is raising her own family in the faith. And in 2000 — after 30 years of marriage — Rhonda’s husband joined the Church, which Rhonda attributes to her prayers for his conversion.

As she says, “Prayer is a powerful gift.”

Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.