I read on Facebook recently that a friend of a friend had left the Catholic Church. Now, I don’t even really know the guy, so I can’t say I understand his situation, but it made me sad that anyone – especially a young person – would have come to such a decision. I realize that lots of people leave the Church each year, and the reasons they do so are rarely simple. Yet, to make matters worse, we often avoid talking about it, not even asking what happened out of a sense of privacy for what we see as an individual and very personal decision. But such a response only has the opposite effect, convincing people all the more that their decision was the right one. “Does anyone even care?” they may wonder.
Because we are the Body of Christ, what happens to one, in a sense, happens to all.1 Whether we know it or not, we are affected when someone leaves the Church. It has to do with being part of the ‘communion of saints’: our actions do impact one another, for good or for bad.2 And though we may want to place blame on one side or another when someone leaves and that unity is broken, the fact is, we are all to blame; we are responsible for one another.
That being said, consider how many people do precisely the opposite: they join the Church. What is it that causes this phenomenon: that some choose to leave, while, at the same time, others enter? With all these ideas in mind, I’d like to share a few thoughts, addressing that young man and anyone who has fallen away from their Catholic faith:
Dear ________________ ,
I heard about your decision to leave the Catholic Church. I pray it’s only for a time and that you’ll come back soon. You see, you are important to us. You have gifts and talents to offer and without them, our lives are diminished. God made you – and only you – the way you are for a particular reason; no one can take your place.
I hope that you’ll come to see that the Church has something to offer you, too: namely, the sacraments. You probably don’t remember your baptism, but on that day God placed an indelible mark on your soul and claimed you for His own.3 It was a glorious moment and all the angels rejoiced! Then there was your First Holy Communion. Do you remember how special it felt to get all dressed up and receive the Eucharist for the first time? Why did everyone make such a big deal out of it? Because it was a big deal; it was the beginning of a beautiful love story between you and God, of understanding how He laid down His life for you.
Jesus comes to us in the Eucharist so we can see Him, touch Him, and taste Him. The Eucharist is no ordinary piece of bread; it’s ‘food for the journey.’4 You are what you eat, and God gives us the Eucharist to mysteriously strengthen and transform us. Have you ever noticed that maybe you feel more peaceful – or perhaps your day somehow seems to go better – after going to Mass?
And we mustn’t forget Confirmation and Reconciliation…receiving the power of His Spirit to guide and strengthen us, and knowing with confidence that we can be forgiven of literally every offense. Of course, we know that nothing is beyond God’s mercy, but sometimes it’s important to hear those words, that we are forgiven. Even if you never made it past your First Communion, that’s okay. It’s not about fulfilling an obligation or merely filling in all the blanks. It’s about growing closer to God and becoming aware of His great love for us. And it’s never too late! The Church is here – ready and willing – to help you continue your journey whenever the time is right.
And that’s where we – the People who make up the Church – come in. What an awesome responsibility the Lord has given us: to be His instruments – His hands and feet – in the world. The Church is not a mere institution; rather it is a “mystery that is simultaneously human and divine.”5 Though God chooses to work through us, sadly we don’t always get it right. If it was our apparent lack of love that caused you to leave, I’m sincerely sorry. We do love you, but sometimes don’t show it very well. Like all people, we get caught up in our own lives or fail to see that what you need most is compassion and understanding.
When Jesus instructed Peter and the first apostles to “feed my lambs” and “tend my sheep,”6 I think this is what He had in mind: to simply take care of one other. Yet at times we overcomplicate matters or lose sight of that mission. Because of our sinfulness, we make mistakes and fall short of the goal; we’re all in constant need of God’s mercy. Which is why the Church exists in the first place: as an act of mercy and to be an instrument of His mercy.7 God gives us the sacraments to not only feed us, but to forgive and heal us. He wants us to love Him by supporting and encouraging one another – to help us become holy. But when we fail – as we inevitably do – we sometimes cause harm or scandal instead of being the visible sign of Christ’s presence and love in the world. Please forgive us! Most of all, please don’t blame the Church collectively for our individual human failings, for She is holy and beloved by God.
I know you may be questioning that right now, but it’s true. What does it even mean to be holy? Does it mean we’ve somehow already “made it?” No. We are part of a pilgrim church, one that is clearly still on the journey. From the guy sitting next to you at Mass each week, to your pastor, all the way up to the Pope, each of us is a “work in progress.” Yet just because we make mistakes doesn’t mean the Church isn’t holy, and in some mathematically inconceivable way, the sum is greater than the parts. Why? Because when you throw God into the equation, it always works in our favour…
Let me explain it another way. I had the chance to visit the Holy Land a few years ago and was so surprised when we visited the River Jordan. Its muddy waters were nothing like I expected. Our guide explained that because of Jesus’ baptism, the water was made holy – His mere presence made it so. But you’d be hard-pressed to know that by looking at it! Likewise, the People of God – the Church – sometimes muddy the waters. Our fallen human condition is such that everything we come in contact with is affected. But God is bigger than all that and promises to preserve the Church in truth and holiness through the power of the Holy Spirit for all time.8
But perhaps you’ve left because of the Church’s stance on a particular issue – a disagreement on a question of morality. If so, I completely understand. No bones about it, many of the Church’s teachings are difficult to comprehend – and even tougher to swallow. The Church is our Mother, and like all mothers, sometimes She’ll say things that rub you the wrong way. But it’s for our own good – out of love. Remember when Jesus was speaking to the apostles and He asked, “Will you also leave me?”9 He knew it’d be tough at times to accept the truth and even harder for us to figure out what to do with it. Yet Peter answers rightly: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Where could we possibly go to receive anything more than Jesus’ very Body and Blood? God gave us the Church, the Pope, His Word, and the Sacraments to help us figure it all out, yet He doesn’t expect us to understand or embrace everything immediately. The Lord is patient and kind and feeds us in ‘small bites.’
And so must we.
Which brings me to my last point: to my fellow Catholics still journeying in the Church… Jesus asks us to be instruments of His love and healing. He invites us to be like the woman in the parable who searches her entire house for the lost coin, or the Good Shepherd who willingly leaves the flock to go after the one lost sheep.10 Because after all, what we want most is for all those we love to be with us in heaven for eternity. These parables not only show us how Christ acts towards us, but will hopefully also inspire us to do the same for our fellow man: to seek out the lost, to show them how precious they are, and to love them back into the Church.
– Kelley Holy
1 Cf. 1 Corinthians 12:26
2 Youcat, Youth Catechism of the Catholic Church, 146.
3 CCC, 1272.
4 Cf. John 6:48-59
5 Youcat, 125.
6 John 21:15-16
7 In Matthew 25:35-46, Jesus instructs the disciples, and all of us, about performing works of mercy: to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and so on.
8 Cf. Memory and Reconciliation: The Church and the Faults of the Past, [Vatican document] International Theological Commission; December 1999; Internet accessed 16 May 2015; available from http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/cti_documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000307_memory-reconc-itc_en.html#The Holiness of the Church
9 John 6:66
10 Cf. Luke 15:1-10