Every single Catholic knows someone who has left the Church for one reason or another. The reasons for their leaving the Eucharistic Supper are varied, some are complex, some are superficial, but all are linked with pride. The antidote for pride is humility, but before humility can come, an individual must come to know why they need mercy and they must come to accept mercy. In this Jubilee of Mercy, we have a big job to do in reaching out to former Catholics who have walked away from their Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. We need to reach out to these people, whether in our families, co-workers, friends, or acquaintances; anyone within our sphere of influence is someone who needs us to live lives that radiate and show mercy. There are two issues for why Catholics leave the faith which this piece will address: Those who leave because they have chosen their sin and those who have left because they do not believe they are worthy of forgiveness. Both of these are seen in the Genesis account of the Fall. They are the age old battles with pride and shame.
The discussion in Scripture of the Fall is instructive for every facet of our lives. Each day every one of us decides between good and evil. We choose to live lives of virtue or lives of vice. We choose to curse at the guy in traffic or ask God to bless him. We yell at our children or we choose patience in the face of disobedience. We say kind words to the people around us or we tear them down with insults. We gossip about someone in the parish, our families, or others, or we walk away or stop gossip in its tracks. We give our day to God through prayer or we ignore Him in the face of our worldly pursuits. We go to Mass on Sunday or we stay home and ignore His command to keep the Sabbath Holy and receive Him in the Holy Eucharist (when in a state of grace). The choices are endless and we make them constantly. Each day we choose some good and some evil, unless we are already saints. We make the same choice that Adam and Eve made:
Now the snake was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the LORD God had made. He asked the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden’?” The woman answered the snake: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, or else you will die.’” But the snake said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.” The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
When they heard the sound of the LORD God walking about in the garden at the breezy time of the day, the man and his wife hid themselves from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. The LORD God then called to the man and asked him: Where are you? He answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.” Then God asked: Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat? The man replied, “The woman whom you put here with me—she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.” The LORD God then asked the woman: What is this you have done? The woman answered, “The snake tricked me, so I ate it.”
Genesis 3:1-13 (RSV)
There are so many things to glean from Genesis 3. It is apparent right away what the Fall has done to mankind; blame, division, self-idolatry, shame, pride, and all other manner of sin entered immediately into the human experience. Adam and Eve were cut off from one another, and more importantly, it is clear that they have cut themselves off from God.
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a good within itself. We were made for good, so what we choose either appears to be a good or is a lesser good, but that choice can become disordered and turn to evil. In this case we chose to be like God. Adam and Eve wanted to decide good and evil, not just know the difference between the two. What all of us forget daily is that the truth is set by the Creator, not the creature. This brings me to the first group who decided to leave the Church: Those who have chosen sin or their own truth.
The Destructive Force of Relativism
In the present age the “dictatorship of relativism”, as discussed by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, is creating individuals who live believing that they are God. Relativism says there is no objective truth and all truth is subject. I decide truth. The Church is not going to tell me how to live. Notice how these folks divorce the Church from Christ. They believe they can establish their own Church from their Lazy-boy at home without having to go to Mass. They are still “good” people and they say they believe in Jesus. The problem with this argument is as baptized Catholics they should know better. They know Christ established the Church and that the Holy Spirit is the life of the Church, which means her teachings come directly from Christ. What it boils down to is they want to be in charge. They want to be God. How do we teach mercy to these people?
Prayer and Fasting
We cannot do anything for our loved ones and the people around us if we do not pray for them. We also learn to be more merciful towards these people through prayer. Many of these people are living lives that are either killing their souls or they are walking around with dead souls already. Fervent prayer is the answer here. For the truly hardened soul, fasting is also going to be essential. Our sacrifices can change the world because God uses them for His good. We should also be offering up Masses for these folks.
Gently Invite Them to Mass
It can be difficult to invite our loved ones to Mass. Many of us have been on the receiving end of attacks for even suggesting such a thing; however, we never know what seeds are planted through our invitation. We need to have the courage and the charity to continue inviting people to return to the Church. We can never give up and we must persevere. Think of St. Monica and her fervent prayer for her son St. Augustine.
Patiently Bear their Arguments
Many of these people are openly hostile to the Church. This can be difficult to bear when we love Christ and His Church more than anything. In the end, we must choose patience, charity, and humility in the face of hostility. In giving rational responses a seed may be planted in the person which blooms and leads to their return to the Church. We never know how God uses us in other people’s lives. By living as witnesses to what God’s mercy has done in our own lives, we can show people how destructive pride can be and that falling on God’s loving mercy is the only cure for our own disordered desires. True happiness comes from abandoning our own desire to be God and seeking his mercy and forgiveness for our self-idolatry.
The Walking Wounded
There is another group that can be just as difficult to reach as those entrenched in relativism, and those are the people who believe their sin is too great for God’s mercy. These are people who have lived lives in violation of most of the 10 Commandments and who are good friends with the 7 Deadly Sins. Many of these people are wounded by the amoral sexual culture of the day and cannot find it within themselves to forgive mistakes from the past. This is a form of pride, but it is an area where the healing salve of mercy must be shared. The approach will be different from the relativist. We must summon empathy, or at least sympathy, when evangelizing these people.
In reaching this group, prayer and fasting are essential, but so is the loving witness and mercy we give them and we live in our own lives. It also requires our own vulnerability in sharing the times we too may have wandered into mortal sin for weeks, months, or years at a time. These people need to know that they are not alone and that God always extends His healing and forgiving mercy through the Sacrament of Confession. They need to know that no sin is too great for the blood of the Cross. Think back on those moments when you felt great guilt and it took extreme will power to return to the Sacrament of Penance or the struggles you went through in returning to the Church after time away. A good many of us have fallen or left the path altogether for a period of time. We will be better able to extend mercy if we remember our own failings. We cannot reach out to people if we do not open ourselves to their woundedness and the healing we received in our own past woundedness.
This is not meant to be exhaustive. There are complex issues at work in many cases, but this Year of Mercy is a much needed time for bringing lapsed Catholics back into the fold. We must confront the relativism of our age and share with the world why we all need mercy, as well as humility. We were made for joy and that joy can only be found in striving to live lives in conformity to the Most Blessed Trinity. In order to return to the journey established at Baptism, we must be willing to seek forgiveness for our sins and return to the Holy Eucharist. We must pray for those in need of reversion and be willing to bear their anger towards us so that Christ may use us in his salvific work. We must also be willing to let down our own guards and reach out to the wounded and share our own failings and the great works of mercy God has done in our own lives. May this Year of Mercy bring many back to the fold.