I left the Church 25 years ago as a cocky young adult—certain that I didn’t need the less-than-perfect Church of my upbringing. Last year, I returned to the faith as a humbled prodigal, longing for the accepting arms of the father, but expecting the judging looks of the older brother in the biblical story of the Prodigal Son.
For a whole year I stood there in the pew while others processed up to receive Communion. In the beginning I felt uncomfortable, believing that everyone was taking note, Sunday after Sunday, that I wasn’t in a state of grace to receive the sacrament.
Then came the annulment process—lengthy paperwork, a review of my life and meetings to discuss it all. It has been a humbling process and yet I now feel a sense of great peace. I am more like the tree that bends, though straight and tall.
The process of leaving and returning, of judging and then releasing judgments, of arrogance and then humility has been a healing journey. I share this story so that others might feel encouraged to turn around and begin that journey home. I share this story so that parents who worry about their adult children straying from the Church will have some understanding and hope.
The Journey Begins
I remember sitting in church on Mother’s Day nearly 25 years ago. I was a young woman, a Catholic Worker, caring for the homeless. I thought of myself as a “revolutionary”—out to change the world.
When I heard the older priest talking about motherhood as “the highest calling for a woman,” I took offense. The Church’s doctrine toward women insulted me as someone who believed women could and should be involved in the world. I was a young adult of the 1970s. I was sure the way to make change was to leave the institution and create something “new.”
And so I stopped attending Mass, believing I was better off pursuing a personal relationship with God according to the path of mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen and St. Thérèse. (Never mind that they hadn’t forsaken the Mass.)
I spent those many years aware that there was a vacuum in my life. That place that had been filled up by the Catholic sacraments and my religious discipline— the cycle of birth, death and resurrection—was now empty.
I meditated and visualized. I visited a great number of Protestant churches. I became a Buddhist. I went to Sufi dances. I went to New Age churches.
A Bump in the Road
Then I became a mom and (ironically) came to see that motherhood is indeed a high and noble calling. I started a magazine called Parenting with Spirit, to offer encouragement and ideas for the many parents I met who had dropped out of any church participation and were raising children in a spiritual vacuum. The work filled my days and dreams. Yet still the empty place remained and beckoned.
Although I was not attending a Catholic church, I had a deep feeling that my children needed to learn how to pray and be involved in rituals. We created rituals at home, and my husband and I agreed to attend Protestant churches, primarily for the children’s sake. I wanted them to be able to transcend the world of money, competition and outer success, in order to find the deeper purpose and meaning of their lives. In my work with the magazine I wanted to explore options for honoring the spiritual life of children and adults.
As I developed the magazine, parents began to write to me. Often it was mothers who wrote things like: “I want to bring my children to a church but my husband doesn’t agree. He believes they can decide about God—if God is even real—when they are teenagers.”
Such letters were troubling. There were many things I wanted to pass on about the importance of having a spiritual life. But I was unsure about the kind of advice to offer.
I wasn’t in a great place for advising others. I was in despair. My husband and I agreed about very little in our relationship. It became increasingly tense and we ended up divorced. I was emotionally frazzled. Some days I prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Looking back I see how easy it was to blame God when I was the one who had gone away—forsaking the healing sacrament of God’s grace.
I believed that private prayer, nature walks, meditation and the study of spiritual readings would help me find answers. And these things did bring relief from stress and a sense of God’s presence. But still, no answers were forthcoming.
Then God did speak to me clearly through a dream. I met and married a wonderful, loving man as a result of that dream. Jurgen encouraged my spiritual questioning and longing. For the first time in my life I felt someone understood my journey.
A Dark Night of the Soul
But then my ex-husband began a process of litigation—an endlessly punishing process that has little to do with justice or fairness or the needs of children.
Then, during the winter of 2002, my husband, Jurgen, became ill. My children were still too little for me to go to work full-time, so we fell closer and closer toward financial devastation. The legal bills were piling up.
I began to listen and write down the horror stories of others faced with divorce-related conflicts. I felt a “dark night of the soul” had descended upon us. During all of these days and years, I had gone far away from my spiritual origins, but the essence of faith remained. I had been raised Catholic by a devout mother who daily prayed for me and my soul.
I had spent my teen years drawing pictures of Christ on the cross. I had memories of when I would rally our family of eight to go to weekly Confession during Lent when I was only nine years old. I had been raised in Catholic schools and once dreamed of being the first female pope. Jurgen, who had been sick for weeks, was the one who said, “Let’s visit the Catholic Church here.” We knew the children needed a solid spiritual core. That was our mission at the time: to help them.
I had written about the importance of providing children with a spiritual “home,” a place where they can learn about God and how to be good human beings while they are young. Yet I also knew that the most important thing parents could provide for a child is a model of committed faith.
Coming Home Again
So, while the children were at my ex-husband’s house, Jurgen and I went to check out the local church. The Mass began with a song I hadn’t heard before, but have been singing every day since then: “Come back to me, with all your heart, don’t let fear keep us apart. Long have I waited for your coming home to me and living deeply our new life” (“Hosea,” by Gregory Norbert, O.S.B.).
That bright Sunday morning Father Tony talked about the Parable of the Lost Son.A group would be starting soon to study The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, Henri Nouwen’s book on that subject.
It felt as if the whole Church knew we were there. Did I have a red “P” for “prodigal” emblazoned on my forehead? I felt flushed with embarrassment and wonderment. But the tide had turned and I was home! I could feel again—with renewed power—the significance of the Mass.
My husband and I began attending RCIA. We began the arduous, but cathartic, experience of obtaining annulments of previous marriages. I began learning things about the Church that I don’t remember having heard in my Catholic school years. To take Catholic instruction as an adult is a powerful experience. Those who have it handed to them as children often have a “take-it-for-granted” attitude that is far from the conscious choosing of the adult.
It is the experience of the prodigal. I had left feeling the arrogant self-righteousness of my youth. I have returned feeling humbled by life and trusting in God’s wisdom. “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the Word and I shall be healed”: These are words that touch me deeply.
And so, in this experience of the prodigal’s return, I have spent many weeks pondering what it is that makes young people leave the Church and what it is that makes people return. The ebb and flow, leaving-and-returning phenomenon is very real and more a part of the world today than ever before.
Being Catholic is not an easy path. We live in a society set on finding easy answers. The pendulum is swinging farther and farther outward and it is harder to find the center. But the search for the God center is worth the effort.
Here are my reflections on why young adults leave the Church and the things that help them find their way home again.
Why Young People Often Leave
Young people leave the Church in greater and greater numbers today because of the societal focus on independence, freedom and “me-ness.” It is the arrogance of youth that believes it knows better than any who have gone before. The young ones feel they have a right and a destiny to forge a new path. If parents appear to be attending church out of habit, rather than committed faith, then this attendance will be a ritual that is unimportant to imitate.
It is also true that the sacred stories have less appeal, less glitter, than the consumer stories or the adventure stories so compellingly portrayed in the secular world. If the stories of faith are not deeply a part of family life while children are very young, it will be hard to instill these at a later time.
On the other hand, if parents have laid a strong foundation of spiritual wisdom and support, children may not need to leave the Church in order to “find themselves.”
And, if they do leave as an act of rebellion, then the Church is the home that will beckon them back—no matter how far the young person wanders away in exploration.
Deciding to Return
People rarely return to the Church because they have changed their minds about intellectual dogma disputes.
Faith is not in the realm of intellectual ideas. It beckons in a place beyond reason—“Come back to me with all your heart….”
People usually return to the Church as a result of pain. It is the “dark night of the soul” that leads us to reflection and a search for renewal. It calls us to reconsider the importance of early rituals and healing stories. In that place of great emptiness, there is either the “God seed” that was planted when we were very young, or there is despair.
If parents watered that God seed in the very young, it is now—when things are bleakest—that faith, a deep and abiding calm, begins to take hold once again and grow. God’s magical beanstalk then reaches into the heavens.
Many people who have left the Church report having a stronger faith and commitment when they return. It makes sense. The prodigal son knew what he had left behind and missed it deeply. He returned with a much deeper appreciation for what had been nearly lost. Meanwhile, his older brother felt only envy and resentment at the attention given to the younger one’s return.
Author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross once said it is the “windstorms of life that carve out the beauty of our souls.” Like the Grand Canyon, we would not be as beautiful or as powerful an example to others without having gone through the great storms of life.
Advice for Parents of Prodigals
I would like to offer the following suggestions for parents who are concerned about young adults who have strayed from the faith. These are based on my experience, my mother’s wisdom and the stories shared by others.
Parents teach best by being role models. Even with adult children, learning comes from the example that has been set. If you attend Mass, offer kindness to strangers, speak without judgment and pray regularly—your children will see, know and pocket this example for future reference.
Don’t nag or cajole your adult children into feeling guilty for having left the Church. But do remind them of Advent, Lent and special Church times they may remember from childhood. Tell them about your activities, including involvement at church.
Remember the spiritual needs of grandchildren without pushing your agenda. Send a story about the child’s patron saint or send a book teaching values. Suggest that you will take the child to Mass with you when you visit. Remind your adult child of the warmth and beauty that were often created by making Christmas and Easter more than consumer holidays. Offer to help create rituals and meaningful environments.
Pray for your child and support him or her emotionally. That support will let your child know that “home” is always there and that, for you, the Church is an integral part of what “home” means.
Always reinforce your child’s positive choices and refrain from judging those things you consider to be negative. Love is truly healing. Henri Nouwen talks about the unconditional love of the prodigal son’s father, as portrayed in the painting of that scene by Rembrandt. The father’s love is open, forgiving and without judgment.
Embrace your children like that father. Believe in their return. Then you, like my mother, may weep for joy when God reaches out to them in their need and draws them home.
Prodigals Inside the Church
There are many who never stray from the Church, but are “prodigals” of the heart. Going to church on Sunday does not make anyone deeply spiritual unless they take the experience inside. Too often we leave home—without leaving home. We can easily stray from God while going through the motions of being a good Catholic.
To understand our prodigal tendencies, our shortcomings and our need for return is a daily event for us all! When our thoughts stray, when our heart feels bitter, when our forgiveness falls short, we are called to “return home” in gratitude and humility for God’s abiding love. It is my hope that this story will inspire a “return” for all of us.
The experiences of troubles that led to my return to the Church have not ended. In fact, my ex-husband is now litigating against the children attending Catholic Mass. But I feel different.
I am stronger than I was when I first sat in the pew listening to the song, “Don’t let fear keep us apart. Long have I waited for your coming home to me….” Now, the tough stuff is easier. The sacraments strengthen me, as I hope they will strengthen my children.
Judith Costello, MA, is the mother of two, an artist/therapist and a freelance writer. She is currently writing books about the spiritual experience of parenting.