Lapsed Catholic: The term is all too familiar, used to describe a person who was either raised in the faith or joined the church on their own, but then left at some point.
The reasons for falling away are numerous.
Some people may disagree with church teachings or doctrine, or have a negative experience in their parish. Some start attending another denomination’s services because they date or marry a person of another religion. Many times, the concerns and distractions of the secular world simply cause people to drift away and stop practicing any faith at all.
The Easter season is when catechumens and candidates come into full communion with the church. Directors of religious and adult education at parishes around the diocese said the weeks after Easter and Christmas are when they hear from men and women, of all ages, who have lapsed and now want to start their journey home. Sometimes these Catholics will rediscover a longing for the sacraments and Catholic liturgy while attending Christmas or Easter Mass with friends or family.
Where to start
Religious education leaders said the problem is these Catholics don’t know how to begin the journey.
“Some people who want sincerely to return don’t know where to turn to be received with compassion, patience, empathy, understanding and love,” said Passionist Father Stephen Haslach, who is affiliated with Catholics Coming Home, a national program that offers resources for those returning to the faith.
“I think people would begin the process of returning to the church if they knew where to turn for help, a place where they felt they would be received with kindness and understanding,” he said.
Some churches, such as Precious Blood of Christ on Pawleys Island, have recently offered specific, scheduled discussion programs using material provided by Catholics Coming Home.
Other parishes in the diocese have used Landings, another nationally known program; have developed their own course; or encourage returning Catholics to speak with specific staff members.
Evangelization is an important tool in leading people back to the church, but those who work with lapsed Catholics say they must make the initial decision themselves.
“Family and loved ones can’t do very much to help until the person has already made up their mind to begin the process of returning,” Father Haslach said.
Sister Carol Gnau, of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, said people at all stages of life can decide it’s time to rejoin the faith. As the pastoral associate at St. John the Beloved Church in Summerville, she recently met with a woman who had been away from the church for 45 years and wanted to start the journey back.
She tells returning Catholics they need to begin by attending Mass.
“In going to Mass, this is where you see what a Catholic is,” she said. “When you see us at Eucharist, this is who we are. It’s important to take that in, start jotting down thoughts and questions that may arise if a person has been away for a long time.”
Sister Carol encourages returning Catholics to go through some sort of catechesis so they can brush up on elements of church tradition or teaching they may have forgotten. She said some people enjoy the inquiry sessions that are part of the Rite of Christian Initiation classes, while others prefer to talk one-on-one with a catechist.
Mass buddies needed
Barbara Hollis, director of religious education at St. Gregory the Great in Bluffton, advises returning Catholics to contact their local parish office and see if there is a priest or staff member who can talk to them.
If they feel hesitant about going to Mass alone, Hollis encourages people to ask a Catholic friend or neighbor if they can accompany them to Mass.
“Personal contact and interaction is so important,” Hollis said. “They need to do whatever makes them feel comfortable. If they prefer going to Mass alone, go into the church and look for a smiling face, then say ‘Hi, I’m new here.’”
Hollis suggests returning Catholics should attend Scripture studies and inquiry classes at a local parish.
Sister Carol and Hollis both said the next important step is to receive the sacrament of reconciliation so they can begin receiving the Eucharist again.
You can help
Many practicing Catholics know someone who is considering a return to the church, but don’t know how to reach out to them.
“It’s important to be gentle with them,” Sister Carol said. “It’s like they say with parenting, nagging never got anyone anywhere. You should show the person by example the importance of the church and your love for it. Offer them a gentle example.”
St. Mary of Namur Sister Colie Stokes, director of adult formation at Blessed Sacrament Church in Charleston, said a simple invitation could be the key to a return journey.
“I find that people who are interested in coming back to the church will often seek out Catholics who are good witnesses to their faith, who really witness through their daily lives,” Sister Colie said. “If you’re a good witness, eventually people who are very interested will seek you out. That’s your opportunity to invite them to Mass, to say you would be happy to go with them and help them find out what steps they would need to go through to come back to the church. The first step is coming back to the community, to worship and prayer.”
If a lapsed Catholic is hesitant about coming to Mass, an invitation to another parish activity or ministry might be the key, said Cindy Mays, director of religious education at St. Ann Church in Florence.
“Sometimes another activity can help them see that a parish is non-threatening and spirit-filled,” she said. “Once they get to know people and see everything that goes on at a parish, you can find the person saying, ‘I might join you Sunday for Mass.’”
Reaching out to lapsed Catholics has been a major focus for the past few years at Prince of Peace Church in Taylors, said Joe Waters, director of adult education and parish mission. The parish even has a special prayer group, the Sodality of St. Monica, dedicated to praying for people to return to the faith.
Your life is the Gospel
Waters encouraged using the Gospel message to reach out to returning Catholics.
“We have to really pay attention to where the person is, because sometimes a person will express an interest in the faith and we’ll give them a rosary and a bunch of books, and sometimes that’s too much,” he said.
“Instead of handing them apologetics materials right away, sit down and talk with them,” Waters said. “If someone expresses an interest in coming back to the church, have a conversation about the relationship and encounter with Christ in the Eucharist.
“If they express a deeper interest, then you can direct them to talk with a priest, to go to confession,” he added. “The whole goal is to get them to meet Christ. A lot of folks who have fallen away from Catholicism are in the middle of a basic searching for relationship and friendship with Christ.”