*This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.
I’ve worked for Catholics Come Home, the international media apostolate working to invite fallen-away Catholics and others home to the Church, since its founding in 1997. This has afforded me, personally, the opportunity to dialogue with hundreds of fallen-away Catholics who contact the organization after seeing a Catholics Come Home TV commercial or stumbling upon the CatholicsComeHome.org website. Those who reach out to the apostolate via email, phone or mail make up a small but strong sample of the millions of people that Catholics Come Home has reached out to in less than a decade, and they have taught me a lot about those who leave the Church.
The messages I receive from these inactive Catholics range from cordial to scathing, and it didn’t take me long in this ministry to see that there are common threads in their conversations. Many of these people are hurting; many are angry; many are lost. All have stories; all have reasons for leaving — reasons ranging from “I just drifted away” to “I don’t believe in these teachings” to “Someone in the Church wronged me” (with the first and the last reasons being most common).
But perhaps the most-shared feeling or expression in the many correspondences I have fielded over the years is this: Almost all of these fallen-away Catholics want to know that someone cares.
They want to know that someone cares that they left. They want to know that someone not only notices their absence, but also is actually saddened, or at least affected by it. Sadly, many, if not most, of these inactive Catholics have never found anyone to express this concern to them.
So I make an effort to tell fallen-away Catholics who reach out to Catholics Come Home that they are missed, and their brothers and sisters in Christ — including me — want them home and that their Heavenly Father in particular wants them to again be a part of the Catholic Church that Jesus Christ founded.
As a unity in the Body of Christ, a living organism, we aren’t the same without them, and we care that they are away.
It never ceases to amaze me how even the seemingly hardest of hearts in an initial correspondence can be turned around after hearing that someone, anyone, cares about them and about their leaving the barque of St. Peter.
I’ve been moved to tears more times than I can count by people who seemed bent on spewing their rage toward the Church and have then responded to my reply with words like, “Thank you for answering. You are the first person to respond to me … and to care.” Some of these people have admitted attempting to reach out to other people or organizations, seeking a listening ear or an extended hand of welcome, only to be further disappointed by the fact that not only did they exit the Church without a single person knowing that they had gone, but they also couldn’t find anyone to help them explore the possibility of returning.
So many of our fallen-away family, friends, co-workers, relatives, neighbors and even strangers whom God puts in our path are desperately wanting to know that they are missed. Many just need to hear it from one person — and that one person can be you.
When you come in contact with people away from the Church, I encourage you to do two rather simple, yet important, things.
First, tell them they are missed and that you care that they are away. I used to think it sounded cheesy to say that out loud or in writing, but I discovered that it really was what so many of these people wanted to hear. I add the caveat that you must mean it. Your words, tone and demeanor must be genuine. They need real empathy.
Second, invite them home. Often, when we ask people who return to the Church, after coming across a Catholics Come Home commercial or the website, why it is that they came back, they respond, “Because you invited me.” Don’t miss the opportunity to extend the invitation that may be the catalyst in that fallen-away Catholic’s journey back to Christ and his Church.
Pope Francis has warned of the danger of Catholics being “backseat Christians.” Don’t take a backseat when it comes to welcoming fallen-away Catholics home. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you to people whom you can encourage on their faith journeys. That is certainly a prayer that God loves to answer. And when God puts that beloved, wandering child of his in your path, remember the words of the King in Matthew’s Gospel: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”