Bringing Back Lapsed Catholics

Editor’s note: The following is adapted from Stephen Auth’s The Missionary of Wall Street. You can hear more thoughts of a modern missionary at Sophia Institute Press.

People fall away from the Church for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes they rebelled when they were young: they rejected the Church because they were rejecting their parents and everything their parents made them do. Going to Mass was part of the package.

They might have made some life decision they knew the Church didn’t approve of — living with someone without marrying, for example.

In some cases, they might just have drifted away. They never made a conscious decision to leave, but after years of no involvement with the Church, they’ve stopped thinking of themselves as Catholic. Or they’re still “culturally” Catholic, but “not practicing.”

Most of these people have one thing in common: they think the Church doesn’t want them back. They think they’ve been away so long that the Church has rejected them. Or they think it would take so much work to get back into the Church’s good graces that they shrink from the prospect.

This article is from The Missionary of Wall Street.

Meanwhile, they’ve been missing the joy and strength that can come only from the sacraments. They may not recognize what’s missing, but they know something is wrong in their lives. They just can’t get over the barriers that keep them out of the Church.

So, how do we bring them back?

Often the answer is amazingly simple: we just invite them back.

Our experience on the streets is that many of these souls are sad or perhaps even in despair but don’t know how to get back on track. They’ve been away from the sacrament of confession for too long.

So they avoid it.

They stay lost.

But deep inside, they’re hoping they’ll be found.

Outside the cupcake shop, SoHo
— Monday of Holy Week 2016

A missionary is spending a long time here with a fifty-year-old man who says he hasn’t been to confession in thirty years.

“I’ve seen worse,” the missionary replies encouragingly.

“My wife is very anti-Catholic … The kids have no interest. I wish I could fix this.”

“He can help you.”


“John, what’s wrong here? You look worried.”

“I just got some bad news. Real bad.”


“You have to take the first step, John. You have to ask for His love.”

John is still deep in thought. He wants to go into that church, but something is holding him back.

Then, from behind the missionary, a voice on the bench in front of the store: “Let’s go, John! This has gone far enough. We’ve got to get home for dinner.”

The wife! There the whole time!

John abruptly departs, hurrying off with his wife into the dusk. We never get an “I’ll be back.”

But we pray that he’ll be back anyway.

Sometimes we have to be satisfied with planting a seed.

Prince and Mott, SoHo
— Holy Saturday 2018

Dick and his son, visiting New York from the Midwest, spend twenty minutes with Bob talking about the importance of con­fession, its transformative power, the grace it gives us to be the people God wants us to be. Sinners to saints.

Finally, the two head in nervously.

It’s Dick’s first confession in sixty-two years.

Forty minutes later, they’re back, beaming.

“That was so beautiful. So beautiful. I can’t believe I waited sixty-two years to do this. Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Now they don’t seem to want to leave the corner of Prince and Mott.

“I wish we could stay right here,” Dick says. “I wish you guys were my neighbors.”

“We are now, Dick. We’re all neighbors now.”

St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, SoHo
— Monday of Holy Week 2018

It’s about 5:00, and Fr. Stephen arrives at the back of the church. He sees Marie, filling in for the missionary who is usually stationed there. “Marie, I saw a woman begging at the 6 train exit up on Bleecker. Why don’t you invite her to the church for confession?”

I’m in the church watching this conversation, and I’m think­ing it’s a lost cause. I’ve passed that woman many times. I’ve talked with her. Never — not once — have I gotten her to show any interest in confession.

But Marie heads out.

Ten minutes later, there she is, with Julie, the woman from the subway exit, coming into the church. Julie has her first con­fession in decades. Another soul’s course turned.

From experiences like this, I learn never to give up. Just because I wasn’t the right missionary for some soul doesn’t mean that soul can’t be reached. Sometimes it just takes a different perspective, a different approach, a different missionary.

Seeds of Faith

All these souls knew something about the Catholic Church and had had some relationship in the past. But there are many people out there who have no relationship with any institutional religion at all. They usually recognize a spiritual dimension in life, but they think they can approach it in their own way, on their own terms. Why do they need anyone to get between them and God?

We see more and more of these people on the streets. How can we approach people who insist that they’re “spiritual but not religious”?

The Missionary of Wall Street: From Managing Money to Saving Souls on the Streets of New York is available from your local bookstore or through Sophia Institute Press.

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

Avatar photo


Stephen Auth has had a long career on Wall Street. Steve is a frequent guest on CNBC, Fox Business News, and Bloomberg TV, a long-standing participant in Barron’s annual investment outlook panel, a member of The Economic Club of New York and The New York Society of Security Analysts, and a chartered financial analyst (CFA). He earned his undergraduate degree at Princeton University, where he graduated summa cum laude, and his graduate degree at Harvard Business School. Steve is a member of the Regnum Christi movement and sits on the national board of the Lumen Institute, which he helped found in New York. He has participated in missions in Mexico, and with his wife, Evelyn, has led the New York City street mission for ten years. Steve and Evelyn are involved in a number of other apostolic activities, including a spiritual tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art called “Man’s Search for God: A History of Art through the Prism of Faith,” which they developed and give on occasional Friday evenings. Steve also serves on the board of the Program for Church Management, being developed in Rome by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. Steve and Evelyn have two wonderful sons, Richard and Michael Auth.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage