Returning to the Fold

Posted: 12/4/2013

"What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?"
Lk 15:4

During the Advent and Christmas seasons, inactive Catholics in many U.S. dioceses are invited to 'come home' to the Church. Glenmary priests, brothers and lay coworkers share that same message—often in creative ways—with inactive Catholics living in home mission counties.

by Dale Hanson

When Glenmary's two-year-old Erwin, Tenn., mission community decided to host its first Vacation Bible School (VBS) this past June, the theme chosen was "Go Tell the Jesus Story."

The weeklong program helped bring this story to life for the children, with a special focus on the Nativity. And its climax was a Christmas pageant, with many students playing parts in costume and the rest forming a rhythm group to provide music.

"Since a lot of the Latino children go to Mexico in December to celebrate Christmas with family," says pastoral associate Kathy O'Brien, "summer was a good time to have this kind of pageant, which the kids had never experienced before."

It turned out to be a memorable, fun-filled, educational week for 50 children from both the Catholic mission and the larger community.

Kathy and other Glenmary missioners and coworkers also see this kind of ministry through the lens of outreach to inactive Catholics. (An inactive Catholic is commonly defined as one who doesn't regularly attend Sunday Mass.)

"Quite a few inactive Catholics brought their children (to participate in the VBS) and attended our pageant, which we hoped they would," Kathy says. "Four of these families have now joined our mission and are attending Sunday Mass."

When Glenmary enters a new county, the pastoral team publicizes its plans to call together a Catholic church community. The members may include Catholics who had been attending Mass at churches in neighboring counties. But some may have stopped going to church, receiving the sacraments and practicing their faith simply because no Catholic church was available to them or because they drifted away from weekly Mass attendance.

"We never stop trying to connect with them," says Kathy. Jesus' parable of the lost sheep captures the dedication Glenmary brings to this effort.

Often, the mere presence of a Glenmary mission can catch someone's attention. For example, 17-year-old McKenzie and her grandmother were surprised to see Glenmary's new storefront mission in Rutledge, Tenn., while driving by in 2012. They stopped to investigate because McKenzie's Catholic grandmother hadn't been to church in a number of years.

As a result of the visit, her grandmother began going to Mass again. McKenzie also started attending Mass with her and, after learning more about the Catholic faith, entered the Church last Easter. None of these things would have occurred if the Church weren't present in Grainger County.

A simple, personal invitation can also be the key in motivating an inactive Catholic to return to practicing his or her faith.

Earlier this year, Roger, an Erwin mission member, was giving away a load of freshly cut wood. Joe stopped to inquire about it. As the two men talked, Roger learned that Joe was Catholic but hadn't been to church in a while. Roger invited him to Mass and encouraged him to visit the mission's pastor, Father Tom Charters.

Joe, his wife and their teenaged daughter are now active members of the mission.

Sometimes, the invitation can follow a knock on the door. For example, after Glenmary's Maynardville and Rutledge, Tenn., missions were first gathered in 2011, Brother Craig Digmann compiled a list of Catholics who had not responded to the Glenmary pastoral team's initial letter. Then he began visiting each of these families or individuals in the two counties.

"I simply knock on the door, introduce myself, and ask if they know there is a new Catholic church in their county," says Brother Craig. "Then I find out about their history as Catholics, and if it seems appropriate, I invite them to join us for Mass or faith formation."

Brother Craig's persistent work has resulted in a number of inactive Catholics returning to the sacraments, deepening their relationship with Christ and joining their counties' Glenmary missions. One new mission member noted, "Brother Craig provided the gentle kick I needed to return to the Church."

Missioners also invite inactive Catholic parents to enroll children in religious education programs with the hope that, in time, whole families will join the missions.

Bruce, Miss., pastoral coordinator Deborah Holmes has even transported children from other parts of the county to weekly classes—now via a newly acquired bus—when parents can't. "Our program is growing," she says, "and some of these families have become active parishioners."

Religious feasts—such as Easter, Christmas, or the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe—and Ash Wednesday also attract inactive Catholics to their local churches. Parents are particularly drawn when their children have active roles in these special celebrations. As families connect to the missions through experiences like these, they often reconnect with their faith.

Inactive Catholics might first visit the missions for very practical reasons, such as attending English as a Second Language classes. "Individuals come to classes, gradually get to know us, and sometimes end up wanting to belong," says Kathy. "In just the past year, five families have joined our mission after the adults attended these classes."

Adult faith formation is also available for those thinking about coming back to the Church. Religious studies programs and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA)—as well as counseling and guidance by pastoral team members—are offered to help them rediscover and explore their Catholic faith.

"Some of my most joyful moments in 39 years of Glenmary ministry," Kathy says, "were times when I've been able to help Catholics return to practicing their faith—and to see their joy in coming back."

The Advent and Christmas seasons are times when Catholics celebrate that the Word of God became flesh and that Jesus is "Emmanuel"—God with us.

That's the message missioners and coworkers share each day with those living in the U.S. missions. It's a message that reminds all Catholics—longtime or just-returned—of the story they are called and privileged to share with others.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of Glenmary Challenge magazine.