The Deacon's Bench

It’s one of the most vexing problems facing the Church: how to woo back sheep who have strayed, Catholics who are no longer practicing. An Arizona newspaper has a profile of some people who are trying to reach this particular group — and believe that they can, in fact, be reached:

Catholics like Pat Julian and Carrie Kemp have set their sights on what they say is America’s second-largest “denomination” after Roman Catholicism. It has more people than the largest Protestant group, the Southern Baptists. There are at least 17 million of them, just ripe for the picking.

They’re inactive Catholics.

Kemp, a pastoral minister for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, calls them “the lost sheep of our church.” Because they were baptized into the Catholic faith, she says, their absence affects the wholeness of “the body of Christ.” Kemp, author of “Catholics Can Come Home: A Guide for the Journey of Reconciliation With Inactive Catholics” (Paulist Press, $17.95), will speak Sept. 15-16 at the Franciscan Renewal Center in Paradise Valley to launch the center’s and local parishes’ efforts to reach out to disaffected or grudge-bearing Catholics and seek to return them to active Catholicism.

For two hours on seven consecutive Thursday nights starting Oct. 4, inactive Catholics are encouraged to come and freely share those things that have kept them away — divorce, resentment, the church’s ban on contraception, an insensitive priest, a bad incident with parishioners or unpleasant memories of Catholic school. The program is titled “Called to Love: Catholics Can Come Home.”

Julian, director of adult education for the center, recalled how many times she has heard “I was raised Catholic, but …” or “I used to be Catholic …” followed by stories about why they left. That phenomenon prompted her staff to develop the class series to be sensitive to people’s old hurts and deep-seated issues. It’s a population crossing all demographics that needs to be addressed, Julian said. She believes reconciliation is possible, in part because people have changed since they walked away from the church.

At the first session, attendees will be free to fill flip charts with likes and dislikes of the church. They will be allowed to vent, Julian said.

“The idea is that we should begin from an honest place,” Julian said. “We want to begin from a place where somehow these people have been attracted to come and see what it is all about again.” Each session will focus on reconciliation and touchstones of the Catholic faith that set it apart, including the sacraments. The hope is that they can return to active life in a parish.

Julian said the effort will draw from the center’s “Franciscan way.”

“Our lives as Franciscans focus on the experiences of life,” she said. “It comes from moments in our lives that stay with us and shape us. … Our faith is about believing Jesus came to be more human and divine — and it puts great accent on humanness. It is from God.”

Kemp, who started her ministry more than 15 years ago, said the starting point should be people’s current spirituality and what their life experiences have been.

Many have been taught that the Catholic Church is a set of specific things. “I visualize a frame. That is what the church is,” she said. “If you don’t agree with everything inside that frame, you are out. So they get to the point where their life experiences, or acquired knowledge, or their own deep faith, in many cases, put them at odds with some of those things in that frame.”

There’s much more at the link, with details of how their program works. Some, I’m sure, will be skeptical. There’s a strong strand of Catholicism today that holds that to be Catholic means: it’s all-or-nothing. I like to offer these words of Blessed John XXIII: “Accept what you can and pray over the rest.” It’s good advice for anyone, no matter where you are on your journey.

Or, as Mother Teresa told Malcolm Muggeridge: “The personal love Christ has for you is infinite — The difficulty you have re His Church is finite — Overcome the finite with the infinite.”

Photo: Pat Julian by Paul O’Neill, East Valley Tribune

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