How to Make a Difference in the Life of a Fallen-away Catholic You Know

*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 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.”

How to Make Your Home a “Church in Miniature”

“Pope Francis has said, ‘Families are the domestic church, where Jesus grows.’ The idea of the domestic church or ecclesiola — ‘little church’ — the church of the home, dates back to the early Church, where Christians made their own homes sanctioned places to grow in holiness and discipleship. Still today, Catholic families make their homes ‘churches in miniature,’ imitating the actions of the larger Church in family life.” Read more from my recent article in the National Catholic Register, Fostering Holiness: Families Create Domestic Churches.

As Pope Paul VI noted in Evangelii Nuntiandi, “there should be found in every Christian family the various aspects of the entire Church.” What are some of those various aspects? In what ways does the domestic church mirror the actions and life of the entire Church? Here are some important tips for making your home a domestic church, imitating some of the actions of the greater – big “C” – Church:

  • Evangelization: The Church exists to evangelize, and so does the domestic church. Both within and outside the walls of the home, spiritual leaders recognize that their chief task as baptized Christians is to share the gospel and the love of Christ with their own family members and with everyone they encounter in the parish and community.
  • Sacraments: As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “The seven sacraments touch all the stages and all the important moments of Christian life: they give birth and increase, healing and mission to the Christian’s life of faith. There is thus a certain resemblance between the stages of natural life and the stages of the spiritual life” (CCC 1210). Spiritual leaders keep themselves and their families close to the sacraments, making the practice of them a habit that gives “birth and increase, healing and mission” to their families over the course of their lives.
  • Adornment of the church home: If you were to walk into the homes of many of the spiritual leaders I interviewed for this book, you would know you were in a Catholic home right when the front door opened and you crossed the threshold into the foyer. Like the Church is adorned with beauty that lifts one’s heart and mind to God, so do these domestic churches remind you of God’s presence in the church home.
  • Sacramentals: “Sacramentals are sacred signs instituted by the Church. They prepare men to receive the fruit of the sacraments and sanctify different circumstances of life” (CCC 1677). Through blessings (which hold a pride of place among sacramentals) and other forms and articles of popular piety (like crucifixes, rosaries, icons, statues, and holy water), the domestic church is enriched in its family life and grafted more fully into the life of the Church.
  • Tithing: Whether or not we like to face the fact, Jesus spoke a lot about money in the Gospels. Just read the parables. Giving of one’s “first fruits” to God is critically important for spiritual leaders—through the tithing of their treasure, talent, and time.
    The domestic church is made a more active cell within the greater Church by generously giving a portion of what they have been blessed with by God.
  • Prayer: Strong spiritual leaders are dedicated to prayer as the Church is dedicated to prayer, especially through the celebration of the Mass, the pinnacle of the Church’s prayer life. Prayer animates everything that the Church is and does, and so spiritual heads and hearts try to grasp that same animating prayer life in their own lives and families.

If a friend spent time in your home and then spent time in your local parish church, would they see a resemblance of activity and lifestyle?

Where’s the Green Tree?

A five-year-old girl sits at her desk looking eagerly at her teacher, waiting in ardent anticipation of her next coloring project. The little girl’s eyes widen joyfully as her teacher approaches, holding a colored marker in her hand.

“This green marker is for you,” the teacher tells the little girl. “Use it to draw me a tree.”

As the teacher walks away, the little girl looks at her blank white paper with unbridled excitement. She pulls the cap off the marker with her tiny fingers and then stops abruptly. She looks over at the edge of her desk and something spectacular catches her eye: a purple marker.

The little girl puts the green marker down, grabs this new, captivating purple marker and begins to draw a dainty flower on her blank page. “This looks beautiful!” the little girl thinks to herself. “My teacher will be so happy with me.”

Ten minutes later the teacher strolls back over to the little girl’s desk. She looks over the little girl’s shoulder to see a dazzling landscape on the colorfully transformed sheet of paper—replete with pink and orange butterflies, a star-studded blue sky, and a spectacular little purple flower.

The little girl turns around in her chair in the direction of her teacher, looking up with hopeful expectation of her teacher’s admiration and praise.

After what feels like an eternity of silence to the anxious little girl, the teacher finally speaks.

“Where’s the green tree?”

God has some very specific gifts He gave you. Why? Because only you can use your gift perfectly. And when God gives one of His children a special gift, He intends that His child puts it to good use.

Chances are, you can think of an item in your home that is sitting on a shelf, wasting away its usefulness because you completely fail to acknowledge its existence. But the last thing we want to be doing is subjecting our God-given gifts and talents to this same fate. In that case, we must take time to discover what gifts God has given us, and how He wants us to be using them, so that they do not get old, dusty, and helplessly ignored.

Well, what is the best way to find out what our gifts are and to know how to use them?

  • Pray. First and always turn to prayer. Ask God what He wants you to do to serve Him. I’ve sometimes found myself justifying my lack of consultation with the Father’s will by saying that God can be too ambiguous at times. However, if I am to be truly honest with myself, I can’t help but acknowledge that God is anything but vague and wishy-washy. In fact, sometimes He can be shockingly specific! God answers prayers, especially when a sincere heart is in search of Him so that His Holy Will may be done. (You remember Matthew 7:7, right? “’Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.”)
  • Consult others. God is fabulous at dropping little hints for us, which He usually does through a spouse, family member, friend, coworker, acquaintance, or sometimes even a stranger. I remember in the tenth grade, after a class period of group presentations on parables in the New Testament, my theology teacher asked me to stay after class for a moment. She asked me, “Katie, you are going to be a theology teacher someday, right?” I had absolutely loved learning and speaking about my faith before that day, but I had never—ever—thought about making it my life. Good thing she said something! God is always speaking to us through other people; it’s one of His favorite ways to communicate to us. Make sure you are open to listening to Him through others.
  • Study. Learn about how to decipher the will of God. Read books about how God communicates His will. Consider taking a spiritual gifts inventory, so you know what gifts God has given especially to you: teaching, evangelization, music, hospitality, intercessory prayer…?

Remember, you must take time to discover your gifts. Since many of us don’t take this to prayer, we end up stockpiling ourselves with an overabundance of ministerial activities and, as a result, give everything a half-hearted effort, instead of putting all of ourselves into the one thing God wants us most to do! We can all get caught up in all sorts of absolutely good activities, but if God wants us to do something entirely different to serve Him, we aren’t going to be truly happy (and God will never be fully satisfied) until we do just that. We can’t let ourselves get distracted by those purple markers—not if it keeps us from drawing His green tree!

God gives us all the tools we need to create His masterpieces. But he gives us all different colored markers. He gave you a green marker to draw Him a tree, but what you don’t see is that He gave me a purple marker to draw Him a flower, because only He knows how marvelous you are at drawing trees and how beautifully I can color purple flowers.

When God hands us our markers, we often foolishly try to draw Him a whole picture. That’s because we don’t realize that God is piecing together a mural on the back wall of the classroom—made of a collage of all of our paintings: your tree, my flower, another woman’s butterflies, another man’s sky.

God wants your piece of the bigger picture. His painting is incomplete without it.

Where’s your green tree?