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Posted January 10, 2010

Catholics look at how to welcome their own back to the fold

By Katie Bahr
Catholic News Service

ARLINGTON, Va. (CNS) -- Two women who have returned to their Catholic faith after years away have written a book, "When They Come Home," as a guide for parishes on how to minister to returning Catholics.

The women, Anna LaNave and Melanie Rigney, parishioners of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, say parishes need to reach out to inactive members by tailoring parish programs to meet their needs.

"The church really needs to come up with a strategy for how to bring these Catholics back," LaNave said. "Otherwise, we're going to have a very strong marginally Catholic group now, but in the next generation, it won't be marginal. It will be none."

At St. Charles Borromeo, LaNave is facilitator for a program called Landings that is designed to welcome back those returning to the faith. The book she co-authored sets guidelines for how Catholics can set up and run programs such as Landings at their own parishes. It also provides tips on how to make a parish more welcoming to returning Catholics, how to market a program on the Internet and how to run meetings in a way that eases "inactives" back into the church instead of intimidating them or scaring them away.

LaNave and Rigney recommend that parish programs for returning Catholics provide a chance to ask questions or discuss issues. Many inactive or returning Catholics have not been exposed to Catholicism since their childhood and, as a result, have only a fourth- or fifth-grade level of understanding about the faith. Programs such as Landings serve as a place where they can come and have their questions answered in an environment where they won't feel embarrassed.

"It's the first opportunity to ask questions," LaNave said. "Once they finish the program, if they feel like they need catechesis, they can go to (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) and be a sponsor or attend Cursillo or Bible study."

LaNave said these programs should be thought of as a journey and a slow progress. The first step for ministers is to help inactive Catholics feel welcome and encourage them to attend Mass weekly. Encouragement to go to confession -- often the most frightening thing for returning Catholics -- should come later.

Of course, ministering to returning or inactive Catholics does not have to take place entirely within the confines of a parish program, which is why LaNave and Rigney advise people to invite their inactive Catholic friends or family members to participate in parish activities.

Paulist Father Frank DeSiano, president of the Paulist National Catholic Evangelization Association, has similarly recommended parish programs that reach out to inactive Catholics.

At a recent workshop at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Hicksville, N.Y., he noted that nationally 32 percent of Catholics rarely or never attend Mass, while 24 percent attend a few times a year, 21 percent at least once a month, and 23 percent weekly or more. For Catholics who grew up after the Second Council, the percentages of those attending Mass and expressing a strong identification with the church are even lower.

Among Catholics of the pre-Vatican II and the immediate post-Vatican II eras who have drifted from active involvement, there are degrees of hostility and anger, Father DeSiano said. Some have joined other churches. Catholics from that generation need to be approached with great sensitivity.

Those who are 45 or younger are different, Father DeSiano said.

"They are not ex-Catholics. They are not angry Catholics," but are more prone to apathy and weakened identity, Father DeSiano said. "Because they attend Mass irregularly, they could better be described as episodic Catholics."

"The approach that might have worked with the older generation, telling them to come home, won't work with this generation," he said. "They don't feel that they left."

"Much of it is generational. They have been raised in a culture of choice. All the advertisements tell them: 'Be yourself,'" Father DeSiano said. They are prone to "tinker" and experiment with their identity.

"How do we reach people like that?" Father DeSiano asked. One hopeful sign is that many in this age group are beginning to look for something, often because of changes in their life, such as a job, marriage, or children. "This gives us an opening."

The most effective way to engage them is through small groups where they can feel secure and begin to grapple with their faith, Father DeSiano said. The key is a sense of welcome, rather than judgment, and the presence of people with whom they can bond. "It's the relationships that will draw them," he said, suggesting programs like Landings or the Paulists' Awakening Faith.

Some dioceses have launched media campaigns to invite inactive Catholics back to church. In mid-December, the Diocese of Providence, R.I., launched a six-week bilingual campaign with television advertisements produced by Catholics Come Home, an apostolate that produces media campaigns for inactive Catholics.

The Archdiocese of Omaha, Neb., likewise partnered with Catholics Come Home for a television and Internet evangelization campaign from mid-December until the end of January.

The Omaha campaign also provided training for parish staff members on how to answer inquiries from fallen-away Catholics and information about available catechetical and formational opportunities.

"Our archdiocesan offices are making a priority of helping parishes prepare for receiving Catholics who may have been away from regular practice of the faith," said Archbishop George J. Lucas of Omaha.