His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found. Then the celebration began. —Luke 15: 21-24
In my work as the RCIA coordinator at my parish, I get to meet a lot of people who are coming back to a practice of faith after a long time away. Many of these people are Catholics who were baptized as children but then, for any number of reasons, never finished their other sacraments of initiation. Some are members of other denominations or even other religious faiths who had a practice of prayer or spirituality that was eventually abandoned. In all cases, whatever the reason for the cessation of practice, the fire in their hearts for a relationship with God was never fully extinguished and they are now actively seeking to kindle that relationship once again.
In all of these people I see a spark of excitement. Something in their life has shifted and now, now is the time when they are taking the step to reach out to a community. When they talk about what brought them to my office, why precisely today is the day they decided to come join the parish or join the Church, there is always a light and heat in their voice that is electrifying.
However, all too often, I will see that light dim as they talk about how ashamed or sad they are for having been away for so long. They’ll share some hurtful or harmful thing that they did or that was done to them; that made them walk away from faith.
We were raised Catholic, but then my parents got divorced and we just never went after that.
My parents were Catholic, but I had an awful relationship with them and didn’t want anything to do with their faith.
I was really involved in a parish, but then I had a big falling out with the pastor and just couldn’t bring myself to be involved any more.
In high school I was deeply involved in the Church, but the life I led in college didn’t really match Catholic teachings. I felt like a hypocrite, and just stopped attending Mass.
My husband died and my church didn’t do anything to support me — I couldn’t really forgive God or them for making me go through that alone.
Many are angry — some at others, but just as many at themselves. Some are ashamed. More often than not, there is a real sorrow over the choice to walk away. Even if they were in some way a victim, most of them feel the need to apologize for their absence. This regret often takes the form of a personal apology to me, the representative of the Church with them in that moment.
When people apologize to me for their absence from faith, from prayer, I always feel a bit awkward responding. As a single and very flawed minister I do not speak for the whole Church, not even my whole parish, and much less for God Almighty. But in this moment, to this person, I do represent the Church and what I say next may very well make or break their decision to continue on this path. The good news is that I do think I have an inkling of what God might want to express, and it’s what I always try to share with the individual across my desk.
I am so glad you called.
I am so terribly happy you came in. We have been weaker without you, my brother. We have had a hole in our community waiting for you to fill, my sister. I am overjoyed that you want to build a relationship with God now, and I am giddy that you want to do so with this community of believers. I do not care in the slightest where you have been — all I care about is where you are headed, where we are headed, and that’s toward a deeper friendship with our God. Apologize if you must — I’m happy to listen to what you need to say. But when you’re done, I’m going to take you around the parish and show you off and introduce you to everyone and tell them all ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found our lost friend.’
People who have been actively practicing faith for a while can forget how intimidating returning to the Church can be. Even if someone has already decided that the Church is something they want to be a part of — something of beauty they want to return to — there is often some very real fear and trembling. All too often, Christians are seen as stern moralizers who care more about naming and categorizing sin than caring for the human hearts wounded by it, and too many people come back to the faith expecting a lecture. We need to overturn this image with a better one, the image that the Gospel maps out for us — for we have been given a blueprint of response when one of our brethren makes their way back home; do not fall into the sin of the older brother, clucking your tongue in judgement when you should celebrate at the feast. If you are a Christian, do not forget your duty to hospitality (and perhaps consider sharing this blog with someone who might feel conflicted about returning to the Church).
And so I say to everyone who is thinking of returning to the Church — to those who have been disaffected, betrayed, hypocritical, distracted, skeptical or hedonistic — Come home! Reach out! We miss you! Who you were yesterday is of no concern — today is what matters. Come back; you will not be met with judgement or hostility. And if you are, if you sadly happen to come across a rare minister who does not speak words of welcome to you, then call another parish. I guarantee you will not have to walk far down the road of return before you meet a brother or sister who will respond with the joy and celebration that God surely feels at your return home.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.