National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Helping Fallen-Away Catholics Come Home and Welcoming Newcomers

How the Laity’s Witness Can Make All the Difference

BY Marge Fenelon

April 10-23, 2011 Issue | Posted 4/1/11 at 4:09 PM

 

Therese Mueller and Abigail Seidman come from two completely different worlds, but they have one vital thing in common: Both found their way home to the Catholic Church via other Catholic laypeople.

Mueller, a Geneseo, Ill., home-schooling mother of five, wandered away from the Church and looked into other religions while in college. Soon after, she met her then-agnostic husband, William, and they started a family. Religion wasn’t a factor in their lives until after the birth of their second child, a son who was born with many health problems. At one point, the doctors thought he had spinal meningitis. That’s when Mueller found herself praying for the first time in years and on the road back to the Church: “I thought, Wow. I’m such a hypocrite. I’ve ignored you for years and now I find I need you to intervene. So, the path back to the Church began. I found out later that my mother, a devout Catholic, had been praying for me all that time.”

Today, she and her entire family are devout Catholics and happy to be home.

Seidman, a pro-life speaker and activist from Charlottesville, Va., started her faith journey as an Episcopalian. Her family drifted away from their church during her early childhood, and Seidman began identifying herself as an atheist/agnostic. She remained outside of any church until she turned 30; depression and post-abortion regret rekindled her interest in Christianity. Because she already was socially and politically conservative, she wondered if the Christian denominations that took the same stance might have a place for her. Her husband, an agnostic with a Jewish background, encouraged her search, although he wasn’t much interested in it himself.

Seidman’s search led her to purchase her first Bible in June 2010: “I bought a Bible in early 2010 and began reading it with an intentional mindset of ‘This is the truth and I need to learn it,’ rather than ‘I’ll see if this is true or not.’ Surprisingly (to myself), I didn’t find anything to disagree with or doubt!”

Shortly thereafter, she became involved with Silent No More, 40 Days for Life and sidewalk counseling in front of abortion clinics. She also started reading the blogs of like-minded pro-lifers and conversing with other faith-filled people, and she eventually joined an online evangelical church. Later, with her husband and two children, she joined a physical evangelical congregation.

Oddly, she found that, in spite of her participation in the evangelical church, most of the blogs and people to whom she was drawn were Catholic. She met Chris, the director of religious education at the Catholic church she now attends; Pam, the Silent No More leader who encouraged Seidman in her search; Robbie, a dedicated older woman and source of inspiration; Harold, a former Anglican priest and current Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults teacher; and Christina, the 40 Days for Life leader who patiently answered all her questions and gave her her first rosary. Eventually, Seidman realized that the Catholic faith made the most sense, and so she entered the RCIA program. She’ll formally enter the Catholic Church this Easter, and her husband will enter next year. They can’t wait to have their sons baptized.

Both Mueller and Seidman credit their conversion — and the subsequent conversion of their families — to the influence of Catholic laypersons who were examples to them of true, Catholic Christianity.

For so many Catholics like them, who have wandered away from the faith, all it takes is one person in their lives who has the patience to nudge them along and offer open arms when it’s time for them to come home. Lay Catholics have the living day-to-day contact and potential for helping disengaged Catholics that our clergy and religious often do not.

“The Holy Spirit puts those people in our path,” says Tom Petersen, founder and president of Catholics Come Home, a Georgia-based ministry that assists dioceses in reaching out to those who have left the Church. “We each have certain gifts, and we are each planted in certain areas so that we can be the hands and feet of Christ in whatever ways he needs us. We just have to be willing to be used as instruments in God’s hands.”

Petersen’s organization airs commercials about the faith, which ran during Lent 2010 in the Diocese of Green Bay, Wis. As a result, the diocese saw a 7.4% increase in Mass attendance among young adults, the program’s target group.

“It had a powerful impact on their lives,” says Julianne Donlon, director of adult faith formation and young adult ministry for the diocese. “What it comes down to is: the laity answering their baptismal call to become missionaries in bringing others back to the Church. When laity reach out and share their faith stories in a warm, inclusive and welcoming manner, they become a strong witness for the Catholic faith.”

Donlon blames apathy, not scandal, for the departure of many Catholics from the Church. They become passive and no longer feel compelled to participate. Gradually, they just drift away. That’s why testimony from people like themselves, but who are still on fire for the faith, is so important.

“Christianity has always been about attraction, not promotion,” says Matthew Kelly, author and founder of DynamicCatholic.com. “Are we living attractive lives? The first Christians intrigued people with their lives. They lived differently, loved differently and worked differently. Who does your life intrigue? As modern Catholics, we tend to just blend in. Our responsibility as lay Catholics is to make Catholicism attractive — no, irresistible.”

The Catholic Church’s irresistibility is most strongly conveyed through our actions and example. When we develop deeply our Catholic identity and live it to its fullest, our lifestyle and enthusiasm become contagious. Additionally, we must look at those who are on the edge or outside the doors of the Catholic Church not as adversaries, but as wounded brothers and sisters. Rather than judge them for their departure, we have to strive to welcome them back with joy and sincerity.

“We have to make it our priority to reach out beyond the walls of the Church,” says Paulist Father Dave Dwyer, director of Busted Halo Ministries and host of the Busted Halo radio program. “People [grudgingly] ask if they’re supposed to roll out the red carpet for those who have left the faith. Yes, we do. Not only that, but we have to go above and beyond the red-carpet treatment.”

Father Dwyer’s advice is to make the most of every moment by focusing on the people and not the speculation about whether or not they’ll actually return to the Church. They may not return immediately, or perhaps they won’t return at all, but their experience with us — either by observation or conversation — will affect them.

“We have to remember that they are one of us, and we are diminished because they’re not here,” he says. “This shouldn’t be linear thinking, that we expect them to have all their ducks in a row before we’ll shake their hands. The time to shake their hands is now, regardless of where they’re at [in their faith journeys].”

Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.