St. Monica to the Rescue for Fallen-Away Family Members
‘St. Monica was not the type to feel defeated. She represents hope.’
Unbeknownst to the many adult children leaving their Catholic faith behind, a growing tsunami of prayers in the spirit of St. Monica is closing in on them. Books and prayer groups inspired by her example are sprouting up to ignite the same devotion and veracity with which she once pursued her son, St. Augustine of Hippo.
At age 29 during the fourth century, the future saint was immersed in a new religion — Manichaeism — had a girlfriend with whom he had a son out of wedlock, and had ditched his mother to set sail for Rome. His heartbroken mother found a way to Rome only to discover he was now in Milan. She caught up with him there, as eventually did her 17 years of prayer — when he was converted in the biggest of ways: becoming a doctor of the Church and one of the greatest evangelizers in all of Christendom.
That is the example before many Catholic parents bereft over their children rejecting the faith of their youth. It is a story of perseverance and prayer; one that is gaining momentum at such a time as this.
The book The St. Monica Club is one mother’s reflection on How to Hope, Wait, and Pray for Your Fallen-Away Loved Ones.
What Would Monica Do? is my own co-authored book, offering hope and healing through the example of St. Monica as well as other saints, experts, Scripture and real-life stories. Ultimately, both books draw on the life of St. Monica to go deeper in our own faith for consolation as we pray for our loved ones.
Millions of Monicas
Through the example of St. Monica, prayer groups are forming and spreading. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, three women began a weekly, one-hour prayer group for mothers to pray for their fallen-away loved ones. It sparked Millions of Monicas, which has grown to 10 groups in seven states, with 45 more inquiries currently being processed. According to their website, they gather to intercede for a conversion of heart — their loved ones and their own: “We want to encounter God through prayer for ourselves and our children. We want to grow in humility and holiness.”
It began when friends with hearts like St. Monica found consolation by uniting their prayers. All three have Catholic husbands, unlike St. Monica, until her husband eventually converted. Some of their children remain Catholic — just like St. Monica, who had two children that never left the faith.
Jane VanHouten, the director of liturgical music at St. Robert’s in Ada, Michigan, is the mother of four children and comes from a family with 11, of which only two are still practicing. She told the Register that she and her friend Jane White shared their grief over prodigal children and began calling each other weekly for consolation and agreed to pray a Rosary for each other’s children.
“It gave us such peace,” VanHouten said. “We were shouldering it together. Knowing someone was storming the gates of heaven with me, gave me such consolation. Then we got the idea: What if we brought other women in to have the same consolation?”
VanHouten had come upon her own mother — who died in 2021 — weeping over her siblings who had left the faith. “I realized we needed to give consolation to mothers and join forces,” she said. “What we give out is totally surrendering to God. It alleviates the anxiety and fear and gives you that ability to step back and say, ‘I trust you, Lord.’”
According to White, also a mother of four who works from home as a company recruiter, gathering to pray helps to lift her burden. “I used to feel that it was my responsibility to get them back to church, that I needed to convince them,” she explained. “But, of course, that sends them in the other direction.”
She shared that, now, she puts her energy into prayer. For instance, when a fallen-away son wanted to debate religion, she told him, “You are a smart guy. I know you’ll figure it out. I decided I am just going to pray for you.”
Joan Bellamy, the third founder, a mother of six grown children who works as a tutor for children with learning disabilities, said she never imagined any of her children would leave the Church. “But kids are on their own journey and will make their own choices, even if they had the same upbringing. It’s definitely a lesson in humility.”
It was a grief she also shared with her mother. “In 1999, three days before my mother died suddenly of an aneurysm, she said, ‘I want to see my children in heaven. Please do everything you can to make sure your siblings are going to be in heaven.’ She had seven children, and I’m the only one practicing.”
When Bellamy heard that the two Janes were starting up a St. Monica prayer group, she joined in. The three met to work out what the ministry would look like and had their first prayer meeting on June 28, 2021.
“One of the biggest blessings is that women came in with sadness and worry,” she said. “It was palpable. Nothing has maybe changed in their children’s situation, but they are telling us a burden has been lifted. It’s been through prayer. Scripture tells us not to worry. If not worry, then what? The answer is prayer.” She added that there have also been reports of children returning to Mass.
There is a manual to keep things uniform, and it is encouraged to have two or three leaders, to help share the responsibility, and the permission of their pastor. It is only for women and not a support group, although sometimes people stay later to visit with one another.
St. Monica Ministry
In the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, Celeste Behe, who home-schooled her nine grown children and writes for the Register, created the diocesan St. Monica Ministry, which began in January of this year.
“The St. Monica Ministry offers prayerful support to families and friends of loved ones who have fallen away,” Behe explained. It is open to both men and women and not only parents of prodigal children. There is a support-group aspect through fellowship after Holy Hours and monthly prayer meetings.
In Behe’s own family, she is praying for some of her children to return to the Church, despite them growing up going to Mass, praying a nightly Rosary, and enthroning the Sacred Heart in their home. “It was a wonderful life, and I’d do it all over again,” Behe said.
The drift began when a son decided at the age of 17 that there was no God. “I didn’t see it coming,” she admitted. “I hoped he was just going through a phase. That was 16 years ago.” He eventually led three of his siblings down the same path.
Behe said she feels an affinity for St. Monica for having carried the same cross. “I can also relate to St. Monica’s ordinariness. Though her son was a brilliant scholar, St. Monica herself was a woman of simple faith. I can imagine her trying to connect with her son on an intellectual level and succeeding only in feeling intimidated. I’ve been there!”
When Behe’s son broke away, he made a public renunciation on Reddit, introducing himself as the son of Michael Behe, the prominent Catholic biochemist.
The announcement was posted on the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. “It was a difficult time for us,” Behe admitted. “The Blessed Mother was our lifeline.”
She and her husband didn’t know any other parents of prodigals. “We had no one to ask for advice,” said Behe. “Should we make our son go to Sunday Mass with the family? Did we have an obligation to tell our friends that our son was the bad companion that the Catechism of the Catholic Church warned against?”
The St. Monica Ministry came about when Bishop Alfred Schlert of the Allentown Diocese asked her to facilitate an event for families in the diocese that were praying for fallen-away loved ones. Every month on the second Wednesday evening is a Holy Hour with a priest, during which all are invited to place lighted candles of petition before the Blessed Sacrament. There is fellowship afterwards.
“The ministry also holds two meetings per month, during which we share resources, recite the Rosary, and talk about both our struggles and our hope,” Behe said. “We also do a book discussion. Right now, we’re reading Brandon Vogt’s Return.”
The Holy Hours include a “Rosary of Supplication for Our Prodigals,” with original meditations that appeal to Mother Mary for the return of those fallen away. The Rosary of Supplication, along with Holy Hour resources and meeting guidelines for interested parishes, are contained in the forthcoming “St. Monica Ministry Manual for Parishes.”
For more information, visit the website at AllentownDiocese.org/stmonicaministry or sign up for the newsletter by emailing [email protected]. You can also contact Behe at that same address to request her as a speaker on this topic.
Outside of Pennsylvania, there are members in Tennessee, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Kansas, with the Tennessee, Connecticut and New Jersey contingents expressing interest in starting chapters in their parishes.
Regarding her group’s patron saint, Behe noted, “St. Monica is often portrayed as sad, sometimes weepy, even haggard. But that’s not at all the way she was. When Augustine set sail for Rome, St. Monica hiked up her tunic and boarded a boat in pursuit, even though ocean travel in those days was nothing like the cruise-line experience of today.
“St. Monica was not the type to feel defeated. She represents hope. She is the personification of the Book of Jeremiah, Chapter 31, verses 16-17: ‘Stop your crying and wipe away your tears. All that you have done for your children will not go unrewarded; they will return from the enemy’s land. There is hope for your future; your children will come back home. I, the Lord, have spoken.’”
This story was updated after posting.