The odds of having a loved one who is no longer practicing his or her Catholic faith are high. One in 13 Americans describes himself as a “former Catholic.” This may mean that they are no longer attending Mass, but they might still have a tenuous connection to Catholicism in terms of a lingering religious identity.
For example, many parents are quite surprised to find that their children do not go to Mass but would still like to be married in the Catholic Church. Or a friend who states that they do not believe in the teachings of the church but would like to have a religious burial. This lingering connection can be fertile ground for evangelization. In working with young adults, particularly, who shared these statements with me, I want to make you mindful of avoiding language which is damaging and hurtful.
- “Once you leave, you can’t come back.”
Not only is this statement not true, it implies that we — rather than the will of God — are in control of a person’s life. We may be exasperated with loved ones when they stop practicing their Catholic faith and even more frustrated when they tell us that they have not “left the faith” but are still practicing their faith somewhere else!
“But that’s not the same,” you think. Yes, but to one who has left the Catholic Church, they often don’t grasp the fullness of what they are leaving behind — namely the Eucharist, the sacraments and all of the beautiful treasures of Catholicism. Many who return to the Catholic Church do so because they miss the Eucharist and the celebration of the sacraments.
Many who leave the church state that they are scared to come back because they are afraid of judgment and condemnation from family members, friends and parish staff. If someone is brave enough to come back to the Catholic Church, we should be as compassionate and understanding as we can be. Remember the parable of the Prodical Son? The Father waited for the son and welcomed him back with open arms. So should we.
- “God doesn’t love you anymore.”
A teenager told her mother that she didn’t know if she believed in God any more. Her mother responded “if you don’t come to church and practice your faith, God won’t love you anymore.”
The young woman confided to her youth minister that, because she had doubts about God’s existence, what she heard from her mother was that, not only did God not love her, her parents loved her less because she had doubts.
God’s grace, regardless of whether we see it or not, is still active and working in a person’s life. Grace does require our cooperation and response to be effective. The call to eternal life, the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, comes “totally from God’s decision” and surpasses “all power of human intellect and will” (CCC 1998). Sin weakens our relationship with God, with others and with ourselves. It is we who separate ourselves from him through our attachment to sin. God does love us and will always love us.
- “You are going to hell.”
Ah yes, the old fire and brimstone technique! It was not an effective means of evangelization in the past and it certainly isn’t today, especially with post-modern young people.
Few, if any, have ever been converted to Catholicism by angry finger wagging judgmentalism. While you might be concerned with the salvation and the soul of a loved one, we must remember it is their soul and their salvation and not ours.
We cannot be united to God unless we freely choose to love him (CCC 1033). For one who does not believe in Christ and his church, the fear of hell is likely to be seen as absurd and unreal. We might not agree with the road a loved one is walking but we are called to pray for them and at the right time to challenge them in love to help them grow. God predestines no one to go to hell (CCC 1037) and neither should we.
A far better statement to those who are away from the church is to live a life of faith that is a shining beacon and witness to Christ. Be consistently Catholic and do so with joy and love in your heart! That in itself speaks volumes.
Stanz is director of the diocesan Department of New Evangelization.