We all have family members who’ve strayed from the church – sons, daughters, husbands, wives, even parents. It can be one of life’s most painful experiences, and most of us don’t have the perseverance of Saint Monica, who persisted in a lifelong crusade of prayer – and nagging, I’m sure – until her son Augustine changed his ways, left his live-in girlfriend and turned to Christ.
When I’m with my friends who are lapsed Catholics and non-believers, I often have to listen to their litany of their excuses for leaving the church – dull sermons, boring music, opposition to gay marriage, differences of opinion over moral teachings, this scandal, that scandal and much more.
All their grumbling makes me think of my friend who’s in AA and who once said of his alcoholism: “I had a thousand excuses to pick up a drink ... but not one good reason.” That simple wisdom also applies to people who have distanced themselves from the spiritual life of the church and the Eucharist – they have a thousand excuses but not one good reason.
A recent poll by Pew Research Center, which attempted to put Catholicism under the secular microscope, arrived at a number of findings about Catholics. Among them: we’re divided on global warming, we have a very favorable view of Pope Francis, we’re open to non-traditional families and we differ on everything from contraception to remarriage without an annulment. What troubled me the most about the poll were the findings about people who were raised Catholic and then abandoned the church. A disturbing headline in the Washington Post described it this way: “Vast majority of U.S. Catholics who left the church can’t imagine returning, study says.”
Some 77 percent of people raised Catholic who no longer identify with the faith said they couldn’t see themselves coming back to the church. Forty-five percent of Americans described themselves as “either Catholic or connected to Catholicism.” That group includes ex-Catholics and non-practicing cultural Catholics. The Pew survey said cultural Catholics identify with the faith in a non-religious way, very often because of family ties. For example, 59 percent of those raised Catholic have a connection to the church through a parent, spouse or relative. And this is precisely where the modern Saint Monicas can play an important role through their power of example and prayer for conversion graces.
All of us are called to evangelize in our own way. Very often when I’m at a party or at work, I encounter people who are upset with the church for one reason or another, and my first response is to say a silent prayer to the Holy Spirit and hope I can do some freelance evangelizing that might steer them back to their spiritual home.
Even though they don’t realize it, their hearts constantly long for Christ because that’s the way our souls are hard-wired. Unfortunately, they try to satisfy their spiritual loneliness by worldly distractions.
Never underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit, who can do anything, including bringing the 77 percent of disaffected Catholics back to where they belong.
While I was browsing through St. Agnes bookstore in Manhattan, I came upon a collection of personal conversion stories titled, Chosen: How Christ Sent Twenty-three Surprised Converts to Replant His Vineyard. The book was edited by author Donna Steichen, who believes those 23 men and women found their way to the church because Christ led them back. Only Christ, she argued, could have accomplished such a miraculous change of heart.
“Despite their marked differences in origin, education and field of service,” Steichen said, “each one makes it clear that it is Christ who did the choosing. They testify that Christ touched their hearts and intervened in their lives in unexpected, sometimes even miraculous, ways.”
That recovering alcoholic I mentioned also told me that when he wants to help someone find Alcoholics Anonymous, sometimes “all you can do is plant the seed and let God do the rest.”
God does all the heavy lifting, and he’s doing it now, despite what the polls may say about American Catholics. There’s a spiritual renewal going on, and like Saint Monica, we can be part of it. All we have to do is show a little kindness, share a little joy, let the power of Christ’s love shine forth in our actions, and the Holy Spirit will take it from there.
Miracles happen even when we don’t witness them. It’s very simple. Begin your day with a prayer and turn it over to God. During the day, he will put people in your path who are looking for Christ and may not even realize it. There’s no need for theological debate. Show love, kindness and compassion and say a silent prayer for them. Jesus will do the rest.
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.