Strategies for Returning to the Church

Our world is a fallen world. The effects of sin seem to be suffocating us. The diabolical is running rampant, unleashed, playing with immortal souls as if puppets on a string. Pride continues to dominate; repentance for anything is deemed archaic, of little use to today’s enlightened thinking.

Certainly this is not the positive language one wants to hear at the outset of a new year, when expectations and resolutions are running high. But all is not really so dire: the diabolical and pervasive sin has not crushed the divine light. “My Immaculate Heart will triumph,” promises the Lady of Fatima. There is a reason the Church opens a new year honoring the Mother of God: obedience to accepting one’s mission in life is the most daunting — and exciting — prospect we face on this earth. We have a guidebook in how to do it through Mary’s fiat.

Perhaps over holiday festivities and the euphoria — and stress — of families coming together, some readers might have encountered resistance from relatives regarding the graces offered in entering the mystery of faith during this holy season. Whether it was avoidance from some in either attending Christmas Mass or praying before a Christmas dinner, such discomforts surely existed. While certainly everyone is different, with their own freedom and right to privacy, perhaps there are some of you readers whose own children—raised in the Catholic faith you so diligently sought to instill in them — want nothing to do with it anymore. It is to this element I wish to address.

In my own experience, generally speaking, I have found degrees of toleration from lapsed or non-Catholics regarding matters of the faith — they know the Catholic Church continues to play an enormous part in global affairs while recalling their own experiences either through schooling or parish life. I have found that while the pervading motif of the millennial generation is a general shunning towards organized religion and regular church attendance, there yet remains a desire for an experience of the transcendent. And that desire is the silver lining.

Unfortunately, committed Catholics are not always quite the fearless galvanized evangelizers that each one is called to be. Marveling that St. Francis de Sales converted 40,000 is usually met with a shrug: “Well, that’s why he’s a saint.” But that’s the precisely the mentality that needs to change.

A Jesuit once posed in a homily, “Listen to conversations. How long does it take before God is ever mentioned?” Out of not wanting to create controversy, God is never mentioned. When he is, or when the Church is mentioned, Catholics are immediately put on the defensive. We can stay silent, letting the Uber driver, for example, have his say about the occultish practice of Catholics (as I experienced recently), or we can defend Holy Mother Church, as we would defend our own mother, and begin a conversation. The faith is not part of the pie of life. It is the pie.

I have come to believe that, in this era, accommodation will not work. Appeasing the culture may seem like a conciliatory gesture, but those on the opposite side most probably will not respect such compromise—even if they do not agree with the position in question. In reading Paul Kengor’s new book, A Pope and a President, on President Reagan and Pope St. John Paul II’s battles against communism, the consistency in the Church’s long running condemnation of communism as far back as Pius IX is impressive. The Church may have apologized for grievous actions throughout its long history, but it has never apologized for being magnificent.

So, how to engage your lapsed love one on returning to the Church? After all, that is our sole duty—to grow into our authentic selves, made in the image of God, and safeguard our immortal souls and those of others towards eternal life. Remembering we can only extend an invitation, a proposal, respecting the freedom of others, here are some strategies:

I: Know Thyself

Be yourself a model of virtue.

Live the Gospel, avoiding hypocrisy, condemnation of others, descent into pettiness. If you consider yourself a Catholic first and desire others to feel that same zeal, your example is the best model. Just like Mary.

Avoid “preaching.”

Respectfully engage in conversation in whatever topic arises. Listen to the other person. Avoid shouting or screaming. Do not let a discussion become an argument or a fight. But know the teachings rather than relying on your own emotions in the heat of the moment.

Pray constantly (1 Thessalonians 5:16).

Read Scripture daily, particularly the Gospels, alone or with family. Have the Catechism handy. Always be reading a spiritual work. Your own edification will inevitably seep into your own worldview. Petition the Trinity for guidance. Ask saints for intercession. Call on the Blessed Mother multiple times a day.

Know your own spiritual story.

What were the integral moments for you in your faith formation? Where did God reveal Himself? Write your own spiritual autobiography in a way that you find creative and inspiring. “Know thyself” is not just an ancient Greek saying. It’s vital to one’s own development.

“Pray the Mass,” as St. Pius X instructs.

Throw your fears and pains onto the altar. Bow your head at the Consecration; respect the Real Presence of Jesus Christ.

II: Extend an Invitation

Know the story of your lapsed child or loved one.

“Communication is simply mutual understanding,” says Stephen R. Covey. You have to care about who they are, where they’ve been, and where they want to go — while you are called to evangelize, you cannot treat them as an agenda, a project. In this way, study Ignatian spirituality for insight on the discernment of spirits. You are always an unofficial spiritual director to someone!

Find common ground.

There are many launching points one can meet due to the richness of the Catholic faith. Unfortunately, many lapsed Catholics have a distorted or misinformed view of the faith, just as many in the Protestant and evangelical world have a Reformation-era concept of the papacy. Much time may be spent on clearing the cobwebs on the reality of the Catholic Church today. Yes, corruption and scandal and atrocities have weakened the moral authority of the Church. But there is a difference between human failings and the Church as founded by Christ handed to Saint Peter (Matthew 16:18). That needs to be made clear. (See Joseph Ratzinger, “Why I Am Still in the Church.”)

Nurture their interests.

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34). Getting to know your loved one authentically and establishing common ground will offer new avenues of appreciation. Are they artists, musicians, poets, writers? Michelangelo, Gaudi, chant, or the great classics of literature offer beautiful immersive experiences in the Catholic worldview.

Pope Francis has been an inspiration for those of any background, through his environment work, Laudato Si, or his call for activism towards migrants, refugees, the disenfranchised.

Connect them with possibly like minded individuals who might continue the conversation, depending on their interests: educators, bioethicists, Father Spitzer’s Magis Institute on science, faith, and reason. Historical subjects on the veracity of Jesus: the Shroud of Turin, for example (see Ian Wilson’s The Shroud, among others).

Give your lapsed child or loved one Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism or a similar book that perhaps impacted you. Rediscover appeals to the mainstream, ringing distant bells they would have remembered growing up Catholic. In many ways, that book is an appetizer to what awaits.

Bottom line: communicate the resources provided by so many apostolates—there is something for everyone. Many of those actively engaged in the mission of salvation, the mission of the Church, were once lapsed themselves. Just ask St. Augustine, Dorothy Day, or many great evangelizers in our day and age.

Invite your lapsed child or loved one to Confession.

It’s a challenging invitation. But you’ve at least put it out there. At the same time, do not let the graces of Confession become distorted. While one receives absolution, authentic penance comes when one’s life is turned around. So often the thought is that a few “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers” is all the Church demands for conciliation. Actually, one must authentically set out determined to begin anew, a new person, transformed. Vinny Flynn’s 7 Secrets of Confession is a powerful little book for guidance.

Extend an invitation to Mass.

Bring an extra copy of Magnificat or a book with daily readings and give your loved one a copy. Sit up close. And then pray the Mass. Together.

Give your loved one Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth.

Along with the timelessness of the Scriptures themselves, this trilogy is written for people of our time to rediscover Christ. It is some of the most staggering spiritual reading you will encounter.

III: Going Forward

Three very simple, practical steps:

  • 1.) Offer help in introducing your loved one to parish resources in their diocese, again contingent on their own discernment of spirits, perhaps even establishing a regular meeting with a spiritual director.
  • 2.) In a quiet moment, offer to pray with them, calling specifically on the Holy Family for guidance.
  • 3.) Finally, ask them to pray for you.

Happy New Year!

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James Day's work has appeared in Crisis, Catholic World Report, and Catholic Exchange. He is the author of Father Benedict: The Spiritual and Intellectual Legacy of Pope Benedict XVI (November 2016, Sophia Institute Press).

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