Magazine article U.S. Catholic

You Can Go Home Again: People Leave the Catholic Church for a Host of Reasons, but Exactly What Brings Them Back?

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

You Can Go Home Again: People Leave the Catholic Church for a Host of Reasons, but Exactly What Brings Them Back?

Article excerpt


For many Catholics it is a Sunday routine, but for Laura Bendini, going back to church on Sunday was extremely intimidating. For the first two weeks she didn't even make it inside. She couldn't find parking outside of St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington, Virginia, so she just went home, somewhat relieved. When she did make it inside she snuck up to the balcony and stood in the back, behind all the families with squirming and squealing kids.

Bendini didn't remember when to sit, stand, or kneel, and she stood in silence as everyone else recited the creed. She had been baptized Catholic and received her First Communion, but hadn't gone to church much since then. Now in her 30s, she felt called back to the church.

Bendini may not have returned had she not discovered Landings, a small-group program for returning Catholics. Landings offered her a community of support--a place where she could express her concerns, ask questions, and learn about the Catholic faith. After going through Landings in the fall, she is now enrolled in RCIA and a team leader for the next Landings session.

"It would have been hard to stick with the Mass without Landings," Bendini explains. "I was barely there and barely going to come back if it weren't for people constantly reaching out to me in a nonjudgmental way."

Bendini may have felt alone on that Sunday when she stepped back into a church, but she was not alone in being away from the church. Most Americans who identify as Catholic do not regularly attend Mass, according to a 2008 study of the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

The challenge in trying to reach out to this group of Catholics is that there are so many different reasons why people are not active in the church. Some just get busy and stop attending church regularly, whereas others have deep hurt and anger that keep them away.

With so many reasons for Catholics to leave the church, Lorie Duquin of Williamsville, New York explains that parishes can't just use a one-size-fits-all approach to evangelization. Through her involvement in evangelization programs in the Diocese of Buffalo, Duquin has identified three categories of Catholics who aren't at church: inactive Catholics, those who are registered at a parish but don't go to Mass regularly; alienated Catholics, those who do not attend church and feel unwanted in some way; and the unchurched, baptized Catholics, who did not grow up as actively involved in their parish. Throughout the country, different programs are used to try to reach these Catholics and welcome them back.

Caught in the drift

Padraig Burns of Arlington, Virginia grew up in a traditional Catholic family, but he had a difficult time transitioning from the college environment into a parish. He went "church shopping" to find a place where he felt at home. "I kept going to church, but after a while I thought, 'Why even bother going?' I didn't feel like I was getting anything out of it," Bums says. "I never really left the church. I just became inactive."

After being inactive for about a decade, Burns finally found St. Charles Borromeo in Arlington, where he, like Bendini, went through the Landings program and became an active member.

Bendini and Burns' experience is similar to that of a lot of Catholics. The CARA study about Catholics' involvement in the sacraments found that 56 percent of self-identified Catholics only attend church a few times a year or they don't attend at all.

Mark Gray, director of CARA Catholic Polls and one of the authors of this study, explains that Catholics who attend Mass once or twice a month said that they missed Mass mostly because of a busy schedule, family responsibilities, or health problems. Catholics who only attend Mass a few times a year mostly said they don't believe that missing Mass is a sin.

Gray notes that even though these Catholics are not attending Mass, they still self-identify as Catholic and pray, fast during Lent, get ashes on Ash Wednesday, wear religious jewelry, or have religious icons at home. …

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