How to Come Back to the Catholic Church

I’m a huge fan of CrossFit.  Admittedly, I haven’t attended classes at my local affiliate for about a year now (deadlifting with bad form caused me to herniate a disc in my lower back, rehab took a while, I decided to take up triathlons, and now I need to spend my limited fitness funds at a place with a pool, which my local affiliate just unfortunately doesn’t have).

But even though I haven’t been to CrossFit Flyover in a while, I still wear the t-shirts, I still like the Facebook and Instagram posts, and I still refer people to it regularly.  Because in my time there, it was more than a gym: it was a community, and it was a community I felt incredibly welcomed and challenged by.

You know what’s weird?  That story is exactly the way I’ve heard people speak of their time in the Church.  Almost verbatim, I’ve heard:

“I’m a big fan of my Catholic upbringing.  Admittedly, I haven’t attended Mass at my local parish for who knows how long now, (fill in from a few different options here“I just drifted away, there wasn’t anything there for me; I didn’t like that the Church taught XYZ; I was abused as a child; a priest was repeatedly rude to me; a parishioner or parish staff member was rude to me”; the gamut unfortunately runs wide).  

But even though I haven’t been to my local parish in a while, I still like some of the memories, I like Pope Francis’ posts and tweets, and still talk to people about it from time to time.  Because in my time there, it was more than a parish: it was my childhood, it was some friends at my Catholic school, and at it’s best I felt incredibly welcomed and challenged by it (and once, even, they said “it was a true connection to God”).”

What’s the difference, then?  CrossFit is simply better at mission than the Church currently is.  Honestly, it’s so much better at pretty much everything these days: community-building, helping it’s members thrive and grow, focusing on the entirety of the wide range of needs of its community, etc.

This isn’t a new observation.  In fact, Julie Beck of The Atlantic wrote a great article about this last summer.  But to really put the nail in the coffin of the Church’s current (and honestly baffling) inferiority in the realm of reaching out and ministering to those in need of deeper fulfillment, tonight I saw this on a friend’s Facebook feed.

It’s awesome, isn’t it?  It’s bold, just throwing right out there the feeling of “look, we know you want to come back”.  It’s contrite, with this feel of “we’re sorry you left in the first place”.  And finally, it’s willing to listen, putting right out there that people should feel empowered and capable of going to the coach at their local affiliate and simply saying “this is where I am, this is what I need, please help me”.

The Church today must learn from CrossFit.  It must be simultaneously bold, contrite, and willing to listen.

Some may immediately recoil from this: “The Catholic Church is two millenia old, founded by the Son of God Himself, rooted in two more millenia of Jewish culture and tradition, and sustained by the lives of some of the greatest human beings to ever walk this earth (the saints), along with a community that LITERALLY is the ongoing and Real Presence of God all over the globe.  It doesn’t need to be contrite, and it doesn’t need to listen to those who have left.”

That run-on sentence is correct.  The compound fragment after it is not.  Being American, I can only speak to the experience I have of the Church here in the west, but in that Church, contrition needs to come from the Church to those who have fallen (or been pushed) away, and we must listen to the fallen as well (after all, we are all fallen).  Even more, both of these must be done boldly, without fear of rejection or judgment, but with the confidence that comes from the joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Don’t confuse this for some scheme to get butts in seats, or dollars in collection baskets.  This is about a rectifying a collective failure to live up to the Great Commission given by Jesus to His Church in Matthew 28:19–“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you”.  

In truth, the Catholic Church hasn’t forgotten this Commission.  “The Church exists to evangelize”, Pope Pius VI wrote in 1975.  “Missionary outreach”, Pope Francis said in 2013, “is paradigmatic for all the Church’s activity” (his emphasis).  Somehow, though, we’ve simply grown complacent, or arrogant, or perhaps both.

With that in mind, please allow me to offer my own version of Mike Warkentin’s excellent article inviting people back to Crossfit (linked above).

(begin moderate amounts of plagiarism…I’m conflicted on this…Mike, please don’t be pissed, and if you are, just let me know.  I think it’s truly incredible that I don’t actually have to change much at all to prove my point)

If you used to be a part of the Catholic Church but left, I’d like to invite you to come back.

I know being a faithful Catholic is challenging.  It’s difficult to find time for prayer, motivation to wake up for Mass, and a reason to be a part of a community you don’t totally understand yet.  Some of the teachings and beliefs are difficult, life is busy, and it’s easier to do just about anything at all than set aside time for fostering a relationship with Jesus Christ and His Church.  I do it sometimes, and I have worked for the Church for the past 8 years, not to mention formally studied it’s teachings for 6 years prior to that.

I also know some of the teachings and demands of morality are hard, and if I’m being honest, I might as well tell you they never truly get easier.  But never mind that.  Being cleansed of sin is sometimes painful.  Just know that you don’t have to go it alone, and in the Church you have the Grace of Christ to lift you up when you fall.

Your parish priest, those who work there, and your fellow Catholics all over the globe want another chance to minister to you, to welcome you, and to struggle in their lives with Christ alongside you, and we’re certain we can make your life better.  I pray that nobody will judge you for falling away from the Church, and I won’t promise we’ll be a perfect community going forward.  Many of us know it’s very tough to break old habits and create new ones.  We just want another shot at helping you.  (Disclaimer–this line is straight. up. copied.  It’s just so good, and so very true in both instances)

Do yourself and us a favor: ask yourself why you stopped attending Mass, fostering a life of interior prayer, and spending time learning about your faith, then tell the priest of the parish you were at.  If the parish fell short or hurt you in some way, be specific.  Good priests want to know what they can do better to minister to the Body of Christ.  Your story is incredibly important to the Church, and while your concerns may not always be able to be acted on (certain doctrines literally cannot change), I pray you will at least be listened to and understood as you are.  If a certain parish didn’t feel right, talk to the parish staff about ways to help the community thrive.  “Be the change you wish to see in your Church” (OK, that was corny, sorry–but it is true).

If the issue was on your end, the priest will offer an opportunity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and help you to set down habits that will help you to grow in your life with Christ and His Church.  Don’t be shy.  Tell him.  Be open, honest, and direct:

“Your website is terribly difficult to navigate, not to mention it doesn’t seem to have anything there for me.”

“I don’t know anyone.”

“I’m too unsure of my own knowledge of the faith to feel accepted when I ask questions.”

“I just don’t feel anything in Mass, and I don’t really think I know how to pray.”

“I’m embarrassed because I feel like I’m being judged for my sins–and/or people in this Church have explicitly and outwardly inappropriately judged me for them.”

Let these things be known and ask for healing.  You’ll get it.

As parish priests and members of the Church, we see unbelievable changes when people open themselves to the Holy Spirit moving in the Lord’s Church.  We’ve seen people in unhealthy marriages reconnect.  We’ve seen teens on the verge of suicide find meaning.  We’ve seen the bread and wine of our community become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

We know, without a doubt, that the Catholic Church can help you.  Jesus Himself assures us that His Gospel is for all people.  But your story is important, because you are one of God’s beloved children, and if you don’t share it, history seems to say we’ll simply stop trying to get to know you (which is incredibly unfortunate–please help be the gadfly that stirs us to action).

Our parishes have all kinds of creative programs (sometimes too many) to help people in their pews grow in their life with Christ, but many parish staffs and priests are simply overworked (and sometimes, somehow, unmotivated), and so sometimes people fall through the cracks.  At the same time, I’ve seen priests shake the hands of every parishioner who sits in their pews, others make dinner for the young people of their community as well as for the elderly, and others stand at the Mexican-American border to minister to families who have been separated from one another.

But we can always be better.  Our priests can always sit and listen to someone in need, our parish staffs can always connect you with a community that can help you find meaning, and the Lord Himself in the Sacraments can always bring healing to your life.

So try this: make an appointment to talk to your local parish priest.  Tell him your story and why you’ve stayed away for this long.  Ask him how he and his parish can help you find healing in Christ.

Maybe you need spiritual direction in addition to the Mass.  Maybe you just need someone to listen.  Maybe you need questions answered, or someone to help you get out of an abusive relationship or financial difficulty.  Maybe you need to be introduced to five parishioners who will text you to let you know which Mass they’re attending, in the hopes you’ll be there as well.  Maybe you need some suggestions for ways to read the Bible or pray with your kids at bedtime.

You get the idea.  Jesus Christ, in the local Catholic parish near you, will help you solve your problems.  You are most definitely not on your own–unless you choose to be on your own.  But don’t.  If you want to come back to Christ in His Church, click the following link:

MassTimes.org 

If you’re in the Diocese of Des Moines, click these ones also:

Diocese of Des Moines main website

Young Catholics of Des Moines Facebook page

It will probably take less than an hour to talk everything out with a priest, and suddenly you’ll be on track again–with the longest-lasting institution on the planet and an entire community of God’s people to support you.

Do it today: Contact your local Catholic priest and tell him your story.  The Body of Christ wants to help, and we’re waiting for you to come back.

(end quasi-plaigiarism)

I didn’t change a lot there.  And yet, after reading it, I sincerely mean every word.  If you’ve fallen away from the faith, come back.  You are a part of God’s people, be a member of the Body of Christ on earth.  Be part of our family.  Receive the Sacraments.  Grow in faith, hope, and love with us.  Stumble in sin with us, but get right back up and receive healing and a new beginning with us.  You will still see warts: not everyone will smile at you, not all priests will be welcoming, and you won’t always have warm fuzzies in prayer.  Honestly, if you’re in my parish you’ll probably be angry at me at some point.  But the Church is more than the weaknesses of it’s members.  It’s the Body of Christ on earth, and that is the key to an eternity of life with God.

***

Also, seriously, look up your local CrossFit affiliate and find an awesome community there too, while getting in the best shape of your life and extending the length of your life.

Edit/Addition: If you’re not someone who has fallen away from the Church, but are reading this as an active and practicing Catholic, make the first move.  We all know someone who has left the faith, for whatever reason, and often times that person is still looking for something to help them find healing, meaning, and/or fulfillment.  Get over the awkwardness and say “hey, want to come to Mass with me this weekend?”, or sometimes as an even better first step, “hey, how have you been lately faith-wise?”.  After that, stop talking.  Just listen.  Listen to their story, and really try to understand where they’re coming from.  Don’t try to have all the answers, don’t try to tell them why their reason for leaving was silly, just hear them.  Answers can come later.  As Dr. Allen Hunt of Dynamic Catholic recently said: “evangelization is just one beggar telling another beggar where to get some bread.”  Listen to your friend, and tell them where to get some bread.  Then walk with them on their journey towards the Bread of Life.

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