A few Sundays ago, Father Kevin brought up the article in the Star Tribune which commented on the recent study called, “Going. Going. Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.” Father encouraged us to take action by reading this article, multiple times, and taking it to prayer to discern what God might be calling us to do to address this disparity of young Catholics leaving the church. So that is what I did.
While reflecting in prayer, I was brought back to the Gospel of Luke 15:11-32. This particular part stood out to me:
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The father said to his servants, ‘…let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.”
How many of us have been in the shoes of the prodigal son? What was the journey like before we made the decision to return home? How did it feel to return and experience the father’s unconditional love and forgiveness?
Those interviewed in the study shared their stories. In that same spirit I want to share a part of my story. I too had left the Catholic Church for a period of time. It started during a student mission trip in Denver, CO where I served with other Catholic college students from across the country. While on a pilgrimage for this trip, another student was discussing indulgences – something I had honestly never learned about in my many years of catholic schooling. His viewpoint was that “indulgences are the only way to Heaven.” Several months earlier my grandpa, “Buppa” as I called him, had passed away. Buppa was one of the most faith-filled men I had ever known. He was a part of the United Church of Christ, and my grandma was a devout Catholic. While I had no doubts that they were both united in heaven at the time, this student’s perspective really upset me, to think that the Catholic Church would believe such a black and white view of how to get to Heaven.
Rather than going to a priest or spiritual director to discuss this matter, I used this as a catalyst to leave the Catholic Church and start searching in other denominations. Looking back, there was a lot of hurt and grief I was experiencing during the loss of someone I loved dearly. More than anything, I wanted to continue to have faith that he was in “paradise” with my grandma. As I read the article in the Star Tribune this week, I could empathize with some of those who were shared their stories, knowing they must have felt hurt or lost and confused from a single experience such as I did.
Maybe the biggest call to action from this research study is not discovering why Catholics leave the church, but instead focusing on what brings them back after leaving. From my personal experience, it took time, prayer, open conversations, non-judgmental relationships, and encountering Christ in Eucharistic Adoration for this prodigal daughter to return to the Catholic Church.
The research article is titled “Going. Going. Gone.” But I think the important thing to remember is God is still at work in those who are “gone.” We must not lose hope. The father in the story of prodigal son freely gave his son his inheritance. He freely allowed his son to take it and leave. He didn’t impose on his free will, beg or bribe him to stay, even though I’m sure it brought the father a lot of heartache to see his child walk away. Such is the love of our Father in Heaven. Our Father allows us to explore and question our faith and walk away.
How might we be more like our Heavenly Father and the father in this passage? If we were to embrace those who left the church, listen to them with compassion, and HEAR their stories, might they feel more open to return home? I admire how the father did not give up hope for his son to return, and I hope that I might carry that same hope for those I know who have left the church.
The Lord is speaking to you. I encourage you to read the Gospel. Open your bible to Luke 15:11-32 and listen to what the Lord speaks to your heart. Secondly, pray about what action you can take. Maybe you are the prodigal son, looking for support and answers amidst your confusion. Reach out to someone from the parish, a family member or a friend who is open to discussing your concerns and doubts. Maybe you have a strong faith and close relationship with the Lord; discern how you might shine that light for others in their darkness. Help direct their steps back home, even if that means just listening to their struggles or questions they have. You don’t need to have all the answers, just a compassionate heart.