Helping non-practicing Catholics return
What's the best approach?
Dear Father: Several of my close relatives who were raised Catholic no longer practice the faith. Easter seems like a perfect opportunity to invite them back to the Church. How do I approach this delicate subject? If they agree to attend Easter Sunday Mass, how do I get them to return each ensuing Sunday? — Anonymous in New Jersey
Dear Friend: Your question reveals you as a caring person. You want to help your relatives find their way back to the Church. You’re ready to help them in whatever way you can. I believe the Holy Spirit is moving you in this direction. That’s wonderful! Be grateful to God for this sign of his love for you and yours.
In your question you wonder how to approach this delicate subject. Please remember that a loving God controls the events of our lives. By ourselves we are quite limited in what we can do, but with God working through us, we can accomplish the seemingly impossible.
The Bible reminds us that God’s ways are not our ways (see Isaiah 55:8–9). He expresses his love for us in surprising and unexpected ways. I believe you’re experiencing this truth, this reality, right now in your life. God is inviting you to experience a change of heart so you might help your relatives undergo their own conversion.
Only God can bring about a conversion of heart because it’s a spiritual and personal journey. God initiates it all, but he often uses intermediary agents — such as sickness, the death of a loved one, an accident, the remembrance of something special in one’s life, and so forth — to fulfill his will. Unexpectedly God sets something in motion that triggers in us a desire to fulfill his will. Our response requires effort and time on our part; it’s not a one-shot affair.
Remember St. Paul’s experience (see Acts 9:1–22; 22:3–16; and 26:12–18). He met Christ when he fell down on the road to Damascus. Then he went away by himself for a very long time so Jesus could reveal to him the Gospel he was to preach. Constant dialogue with God became a part of who Paul was and what he accomplished.
How will you react when your relatives bring up their reasons for leaving the Church? Will you be judgmental or openhearted? Pray that with God’s help you will always be understanding, patient, forgiving, and welcoming. This experience might even make you more aware of your own shortcomings and that, surprisingly, the Spirit is also calling you to your own conversion.
You can’t set a time limit for God’s actions. You must remain steadfast as long as God wishes. However, be confident that God will grant you the perseverance, the patience, the energy, and the desire to see the process completed. God will show you how to deal gently and lovingly with your relatives and their reasons for leaving the Church. Let your heart be filled with praise and admiration for God’s loving action. Perhaps the best response you can offer is living your own Catholic life as faithfully as possible without boasting and in a spirit of humility. Actions do speak louder than words.
Your desire to help your relatives comes from God, who will not abandon you. He extravagantly pours out his Spirit on you to guide and strengthen you throughout the process. Diocesan programs such as Catholics Come Home (CatholicsComeHome.org) exist to support you. Check to see what’s available in your area. These groups will enable you and your relatives to appreciate that the Church gives meaning to life as well as brings healing and reconciliation. Above all the Church connects us together with Christ present in the Eucharist.
Trusting fully in God’s love for us describes the stance you should maintain throughout this process. A prayerful attitude defines our relationship to God because it keeps us aware that God loves us with unconditional and merciful love. He’s always more eager to forgive us than we are to ask for forgiveness.
Added to this, Jesus also calls us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). That would be a tall order if we were left to ourselves. We are not abandoned, however, for God lavishly sends us his Spirit. As St. Paul tells us in Romans 8:15–16:
You received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.
Bl. John Henry Newman’s prayer expresses this reality so beautifully:
Shine through me and be so in me that every soul I come in contact with may feel your presence in my spirit.