What’s in a name? Maybe an opportunity! A name can be affirming and friendly. It can also be judgmental and offensive. I’m intrigued by the names we give to Catholics who do not regularly attend Mass. Some names are negative: “lost sheep,” “fallen away,” “ex-Catholics.” Others are more neutral, such as “inactive Catholics.”
Two approaches are more understanding. First, Bishop Denis Madden, in a recent issue of America magazine, spoke of “inviting those who once walked with us, but have taken a byroad, to join us again.” If they accepted the invitation, we could call them “Returning Catholics.”
Second, Pope Francis, in The Joy of the Gospel, gives three areas where we need to share our faith. The first is “ordinary pastoral ministry of the faithful who regularly take part in community worship and gather on the Lord’s day.” And he adds, “In this category we can also include those members of the faithful who preserve a deep and sincere faith, expressing it in different ways, but seldom take part in worship.” The other two areas are “the baptized whose lives do not reflect the demands of Baptism” and “those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him.” But the pope adds, “Many of these are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face. . . .”
The pope’s approach is friendly and non-judgmental in accordance with his style of preferring to consider individuals and listening to their stories before rushing to judgment. His descriptions are friendly: some have “deep, sincere faith, expressing it in different ways,” others are “quietly seeking God.”
‘Marked by Joy’
Studies show that about one in three Americans raised in the Catholic Church “no longer walks with us,” as Bishop Madden said. This is not new to us. We’ve seen the empty pews and missing friends and relatives.
What’s new is Pope Francis on the world stage, gaining the attention and applause of many who don’t go to church regularly. The pope gives us a new opportunity to reach out and welcome those who may wish to return to the Church. Some may welcome a chance to tell their story to a respectful listener. One person said: “No one ever said they missed me. Even though I stopped coming and contributing, no one asked why.” We remember the advice in the First Letter of Peter to give reasons for our hope “but do it with gentleness and kindness.”
Doing nothing is not an option for Pope Francis. He is out there showing the way and motivating us. In The Joy of the Gospel he says: “We cannot leave things as they presently are.” He quotes the Latin American bishops: we “cannot passively and calmly wait in our church buildings.” We must “go out to others, seek those who have fallen away.” He invites us to “a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to let him encounter us.” Francis urges us “to embark upon a new chapter of evangelization marked by joy.”
What are your ideas on reaching out, respectfully, to those who no longer walk with us? What’s your experience? Peace!