What To Do When Children Leave the Church

“You who are the mother of sorrows at the foot of the cross, be there to lighten our loads, and wipe away the tears of those afflicted by family difficulties.” —Prayer of Pope St. John Paul II

Ary Scheffer, “St. Augustine of Hippo and His Mother St. Monica of Hippo,” 1846
Ary Scheffer, “St. Augustine of Hippo and His Mother St. Monica of Hippo,” 1846 (photo: Public Domain)

It’s a heartbreak for faithful Catholics parents when their children leave the Church. Even among families trying to do everything right, results are often mixed. Since we are one family in Christ, it is a situation that affects us all. For families suffering this heartache, here are insights from an author in that situation, a deacon with powerful advice, and a prayer by Pope St. John Paul II.

The reality of prodigal children was the inspiration for one mother to write Saint Monica's Club: How to Hope, Wait, and Pray for Your Fallen-Away Love Onesnamed after St. Monica, who spent 17 years praying for her son St. Augustine’s return to the faith. No one wants to be a part of this club, yet all are kindred spirits praying for their children. Her book is a pep talk, a hug, and a solidarity of faith that offers great hope to parents of prodigals.

The author is the mother of a large family, some who embrace the Catholic faith and some who no longer do. She used the pen name, Maggie Green. “I’m not ashamed that I have children wrestling with God,” she said in an interview. “I didn’t use my name because it’s their struggle and I did not want to open it up to armchair quarterbacking.” She also did not want it to be just about her own family, but instead, to be relevant for all families.

Green explained that once she had a child drift away, she realized that prayer, unconditional love and living a good Catholic example were her most important weapons. “St. Augustine knew what his mother believed, so no one can say he didn’t have good catechesis, but he still went away,” Green said. “St. Monica kept a relationship with him, simply to love him, not to lecture him. She did put people in front of him that he would respect, but her primary way was through prayer and maintaining a relationship.”

It’s a humbling time that parents can try to prevent with good catechesis, but ultimately, they cannot control everything, according to Green. “Evangelization of the faith cannot be reduced to a mathematical equation,” she said. “That would be perverse — like the prosperity Gospel — where people think that if you do everything right, you are guaranteed results. God created Adam and Eve, adults, and they fell away.”

When Green sees Godly qualities in her children such as a thirst for justice or a love of contemplation and beauty, she is thankful for the ways they are still touching God; still breathing on the embers of faith. In the end, it’s all about love she said. “We can’t bribe people to fall in love or intellectually argue them into falling in love, and ultimately, faith is about falling in love with Christ.”


Ways to Give it to God

When Deacon Mike McKeown recently spoke about “Praying Your Loved Ones into the Kingdom” during a Day of Reflection at the Abbey of the Hills in Marvin, South Dakota, he offered inspiration for parents of prodigals. Although his own six adult children are faithful Catholics, in his family of origin, many have left the Church. He acknowledged that what parents do matters, but said we cannot control everything, and anxiety or beating ourselves up over mistakes is not helpful. “Jesus is not limited by our failures,” he said.

“I believe in God’s goodness, and that he is merciful, and he cares about my loved ones more than I do,” McKeown explained. Instead of giving God a deadline or expectations, he said that we need to let God be God. “Repeat after me,” he told the audience. “Jesus. You are the Savior. I am not.”

Here are some of his suggestions:

  • You might be pressing too hard. Let Jesus do that. Our job is intercession.
  • Pray with the Precious Blood of Jesus as a powerful way to intercede. We can pray the Litany to the Precious Blood of Jesus.
  • Pray for the dying as inspired in the book Devotion for the Dying by Ven. Mother Mary Potter. “Pray for those who are dying and when our loved ones are dying, every grace will be made available to them because of our devotion.”
  • Whatever our negligence or faults, give them to Jesus. “Worrying is not a form of prayer. It is a sign of lack of trust in God.”
  • Be willing to sacrifice and offer up sufferings.
  • “Pray much and make sacrifices for sinners,” said Our Lady of Fatima to the three shepherd children.
  • “Suffering can also have a redemptive meaning for the sins of others,” says the Catechism (CCC 1502).
  • “You will join prayers, fasts, mortifications, labors and all sufferings to my sufferings and then they will have power before my Father,”  said Jesus to St. Faustina (Diary 531).
  • Pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
  • Pray to the saints. “God allows them to share the graces they earned with us when we pray and ask.”

McKeown offered this prayer for parents. “If you feel a burden in your heart for your loved ones, it is an invitation from Jesus to intercede. He has already paid the price for their salvation and he invites you to surrender your concerns to him and join in his intercession. So we come before you, Lord Jesus, in a spirit of confidence in your great mercy. We thank you for the ways you are at work in our hearts and in the lives of our family even when we don’t see it. Through the intercession of Our Blessed Mother, we confidently surrender all of our loved ones and our concerns for them into your merciful heart. Jesus, I Trust In You!”


Pope St. John Paul II’s Prayer for Families

Throughout his life, Pope St. John Paul II had a strong devotion to Our Blessed Mother, entrusting his life, his pontificate, the Church and the world to her. He wrote many private prayers to her. Here is one he wrote for families:

May the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church, be also mother of the domestic church.

Through her maternal help, may every Christian family

truly become a little church which reflects and relives the mystery of the Church of Christ.

May you who are the servant of the Lord, be our example

of a humble and generous welcome of the will of God!

You who are the mother of sorrows at the foot of the cross,

be there to lighten our loads, and wipe away the tears of those afflicted by family difficulties.

May Christ the Lord, King of the Universe, King of families,

be present, as at Cana, in every Christian home, to communicate his light, joy, serenity and strength.

May every family generously add its share to the coming of his kingdom on earth.

To Christ and to you, Mary, we entrust our families.