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Only Part of the Story, Part II:
Leaving and Returning to the Church

by Father Charles L. Fuld

Father Charles L. Fuld

In the spring of 2008, I wrote the following article, which I titled “Only Part of the Story: Catholics Leaving the Church.” It was written in response to a Pew Research Center study, which addressed the number of Catholics who were supposedly leaving the Church. Well, a more recent Pew Research study reports about the same thing.

But before we panic, consider the point that I made then and the need for each of us to accept our role of evangelizer, the role we took on a long time ago when we asked to be confirmed in this Catholic Church. Yes, we need to invite friends, neighbors and loved ones to accompany us to church — and, just as important, we need to help to keep the church doors open for them when they are ready to return.

I read the Feb. 26 [2008] San Diego Union-Tribune lead story about the number of Catholics who have left the Church with a great sense of sadness. It was part of an article prepared by the Washington Post and the New York Times, based on a recently published study conducted by the “Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.”

They had interviewed 35,000 adults and found that a goodly percentage of these people had left the faith of their childhood and now described themselves as “non-denominational” or “unaffiliated” in their religious beliefs. I would have walked away from the story had not these last few days of Lent helped me realize that their report contains only part of the story, and helped me move from a sense of despair to one of hope.

Lent, you see, is a special time in the lives of Catholics. It begins with Ash Wednesday, when you see great multitudes of people seeking ashes. For some of these people, it is their way of keeping a hold on to the Church they rarely visit. But the truly amazing part of this season of Lent is when parishes offer their Lenten reconciliation services for which we priests are called to double duty to help deal with the crowds and hear their confessions.

Each time I am called to take part in one of these sessions in my own parish and in neighboring parishes, I am overwhelmed, not so much by the “regulars” whom I know well, but by the people who sit down next to me and start by saying, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; it has been 40 years since my last confession  ...,” or, “Father, I can’t remember how long it has been since the last time I was here.” These brief encounters often end with our arms around one another and both of us crying in joy and relief.

That, of course, is what reconciliation is all about.

Yes, the Pew group is probably right in saying that a sizeable number of Americans leave the Church of their childhood — or, at least, allow themselves to become “inactive” — as they discover the opposite gender, get overwhelmed by their work schedules, discover the promises of modern science, fall into a sense of isolation, etc.

I remember how excited I was as a freshman at NYU when I first encountered all the wonders of Psychology 101. It had all the answers I could ever want — or so I thought for a while. It was years before I found myself back in the Catholic Church.

I remember, many years later, as a Catholic priest and the new pastor of a large church in Escondido, looking out at the congregation and seeing all the many gray-haired people seated in the pews and thinking to myself, “Wow, when all these people die off, we will cease to exist as a Church.” And then, as the years went by, I discovered that new gray-haired people kept appearing in the congregation.

The U-T article concluded that “the percentage of Catholics in the American population has held steady for decades at about 24 percent” and goes on to theorize that this constancy has been maintained mainly by the influx of Catholic immigrants.

My experience, especially during this time of Lent, tells me that there are other factors at work, too, one of which is the many Catholics who come home after wandering around — sort of like the lost sheep of which Jesus speaks.

The Southern Cross

This commentary first appeared in the June 2015 issue of The Southern Cross.

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