How to help Catholics come home

Know someone who’s thinking about returning to the Church? Here’s what to say… and what not to…

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By Melanie Rigney and Anna M. LaNave

You see inactive Catholics everywhere: the woman at the playground who looks wistful when you talk about the parish school; the co-worker who jokes when he observes you not eating meat on a Lenten Friday; the neighbor who waves as you drive away to Mass while he mows the grass. Most painfully, you may see them at home: in the closed bedroom door of your visiting adult child who chooses to sleep in on Sunday morning.


You see them everywhere because they are everywhere. Close to 65 million Americans are Catholic by virtue of their baptism, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. But just 36 percent attend Mass on a weekly basis, CARA’s measure of an active Catholic. That means more than 40 million people are “inactive” Catholics, the second largest “Church” in the country. Research showed that over 40 percent of Catholics are inactive for at least two years, mainly in their teens and 20s as they leave the confines of their parents’ home.   


The Church has always taken great consolation in the fact that many inactives return as they marry and have children. But with those events happening later in life than they once did, people are away from the Church longer and therefore are less likely to return when they occur. In addition, increased interfaith marriages (close to 50 percent of Catholics marry non-Catholics) and nontraditional families/single households are resulting in weaker ties to Catholic traditions for those in their 20s and 30s. Often, they were baptized and received First Communion out of deference to the grandparents, but lack a strong understanding of what it means to be Catholic.


Why else do people stop going to Church? Not for the reasons you might think.

Contemporary research doesn’t link the pedophile scandals or “rejection by the Church” to a movement away from our faith. Many inactive Catholics attended Catholic school or CCD, then stopped coming to Mass because of boredom, family tensions, rebellion, or divorce. Others simply drifted away. Some may cite a disagreement with moral teachings or a problem with a specific priest or nun, but few say they don’t believe in God or no longer consider themselves Catholic.  


Why do they think about coming back? Events beyond marriage and childbirth may cause a stirring in inactive Catholics’ souls today: divorce, a move, a new job, a job loss, a health crisis, a death in their inner circle. And when they take those first halting steps back, it’s likely that a friend or family member will be among the people to whom they first open up.

Getting started
Perhaps you’re in a quandary. You know your daughter doesn’t go to church at college, but you’d love her to come to Easter Mass with you. Or, your inactive Catholic co-worker comments sarcastically about your forehead on Ash Wednesday. What should you do?
Don’t lecture. You want to start a dialogue, not put up walls. Repeatedly telling people you are in fear of their eternal salvation is a sure way to keep them from sharing any religious thoughts. Be a witness to God’s love and forgiveness.


Don’t label people as “fallen away” or “lapsed” Catholics. Many inactive Catholics believe that they can be “good” Catholics without attending Mass every Sunday. If they see you as nonjudgmental, they will be more open to spiritual conversations.


Don’t overreact. If an inactive Catholic challenges your belief in the True Presence or about the Church’s stand on abortion, premarital sex, or another issue, don’t get defensive. The person may be unsure of his or her own convictions. Explain your understanding of the Catholic position, and offer to provide books, articles, or other resources on the subject that you can read and discuss together.


Do invite. Always offer the opportunity to accompany you to parish events or Mass, especially on holy days. If he or she declines, don’t push it. But do extend the invitation at the next appropriate time.


Do not make a comment about the person’s reception or non-reception of the Eucharist unless you are asked.


Do pray. Especially if you are a parent of an inactive Catholic, you must trust in God’s love for all his children. God knows your loved one intimately, and knows the spiritual journey he or she must take to deepen his or her Catholic faith. Consider starting a St. Monica ministry at your parish (see page 61) to pray with others in the same situation.

Sowing the seed
Sometimes, people who want to return to an active faith life aren’t sure they can be “perfect” Catholics because of their disagreements with the Church or because of personal problems. Those whose formation ended with Confirmation decades ago may not have a firm grasp on the Church’s teachings. Inactive Catholics tend to fear the prospect of going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation in particular.


They may ask you tentative questions about what might be involved in a return to the Church. And when they do, it’s important that you respond in a loving manner.


Do encourage. Let them know that the Church wants them back and that there are no perfect Catholics, just Catholics who are loved by God. If they have lots of questions, offer to set up a private appointment with your pastor. Inactives may have complicated situations better addressed in an informal conversation than in a confessional.


Do provide resources. Check with the office of the parish near the person’s home to see if it offers a program for returning Catholics. Among the best known are Landings, Catholics Coming Home, and Catholics Returning Home. Your parish also may have created its own program. Share the information, but wait for the inactive to tell you whether he or she pursued it.  


Don’t despair. Some people need to talk about a return for years or decades before they act. Each person’s spiritual journey is unique.

On the way
As they rediscover their faith, returning Catholics may experience a real conversion, and that can be a little disconcerting. Suddenly, your friend, co-worker, or family member wants to talk about the way Jesus is working in his life. She asks you about your favorite Bible verses. He wonders how to get more involved in parish ministries. She asks if you’ll help her start a prayer group.


What a wonderful opportunity this presents to re-energize your own faith!


Do listen. Avoid saying things like, “Don’t go so fast,” or “I was excited about all that once too. You’ll get over it,” or “Slow down, already!”


Do share. Discuss your own faith journey, including challenges and doubts you have had and may still have today. Be a witness, both in word and deed, to an authentically lived Catholic life.


Do engage. Try the new faith-based activities your friend or family member suggests. Let the fire spread to your soul.


As you interact with inactives at various stages of their exploration, remember the story of the prodigal son. The father let his younger son go out to the world and seek his way, even though the departure must have hurt the father deeply. He waited and prayed. When the son returned, the father ran to receive him with great joy and called for a feast, no questions asked. In the same way, through our prayers and presence, we can warmly encourage and embrace those on their way home.

Melanie Rigney and Anna M. LaNave

Anna LaNave is a parish facilitator for “Landings,” a Paulist program for inactive/returning Catholics, at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Arlington, Virginia. Melanie Rigney returned to the Church in 2005 after being away for 32 years and is a “Landings” team member at St. Charles Borromeo Parish. They are the authors of When They Come Home: Ways to Welcome Returning Catholics (; 800-321-0411).