Catholics reach out to those who've wandered from church

Posted: Friday, March 09, 2001

BOSTON (AP) -- Caroline O'Brien didn't break from the Roman Catholic church. She quietly walked away.

O'Brien was an 18-year-old Harvard freshman with serious doubts about the church's stand on women's issues. The last straw was a Cold War sermon implying all Russians were evil. It turned her off, and she was gone.

''I just kind of got fed up,'' she said.

Sixteen years later, she came back.

Her return started with feelings of despair and an unplanned visit to Mass at the Paulist center in Boston. That led her to Landings, a Paulist program for Catholics who've left the church.

''My life is completely changed,'' said O'Brien, now 40. ''I have so much patience. I know my place.''

Landings and the Come Home Ministry at St. Anthony's Shrine, both in Boston, are examples of programs aimed at bringing inactive Catholics back into the fold.

The rise of such programs reflects Catholics' move from being an American subculture into the mainstream, where they haven't always been welcome, said religious studies professor Dennis Doyle of the University of Dayton.

Once a group blends into the mainstream, it has to increase evangelism to stay strong, he said. An obvious target for Catholics is their alienated members, he said, adding that reconciliation groups tend to emphasize that the church is changing, more understanding, more flexible.

''One key feeling that comes through ... is that the Catholic church is different looking,'' he said.

Some of these groups are using decidedly mainstream ways to get out their messages.

An ad in a Boston newspaper for Come Home was addressed to Catholics who had left the church due to ''busyness, lifestyle, divorce, invalid marriage, feeling excluded, hurt feelings, ministerial abuse or ???.'' It urged them to get in touch with the ministry.

Certain church teachings have proven particularly troublesome to modern parishioners. For example, the church opposes remarriage after divorce unless an annulment is granted. It opposes artificial birth control. It won't allow women into the priesthood.

Peggy Lavoie, a layperson leading a Landings group in Boston, said many people view the church as rigid and anachronistic.

''The Catholic church is not a democracy,'' she said. ''Some people feel they don't have the kind of power and the kind of democratic voice they're accustomed to in other parts of their lives.''

But other faiths face similar issues, and besides, Lavoie said, disagreements don't necessarily end relationships in other parts of life, and don't have to mean a break with the church.

''People who are mad at their families still get together at Thanksgiving,'' she said.

Landings focuses on getting people to talk about their spiritual lives and why they left Catholicism -- and it adds good food and socializing to the mix. Lay leaders also make people aware of specific ministries that might help, such as groups for divorced Catholics.

Lavoie said many people find the church more willing than expected to respond to their voice.

Still, Landings doesn't bend church doctrine to accommodate those who are uncomfortable with it, said the Rev. Jac Campbell, the group's founder.

''Where there's the ability to be flexible, you're as flexible as you can be, without being wishy-washy,'' he said.

O'Brien said her return to Catholicism didn't lead to total acceptance of church doctrine.

''I might not always agree with it,'' she said. ''But it's my vehicle, it's how I connect with God.''

About 250,000 people have gone through the landings program in 10 years, according to Campbell.

Jackie Stewart of the Come Home Ministry credits the basics of the faith, as well as its sacraments.

''The Catholic Church has mystery and tradition,'' she said. ''People who have been born and raised in the tradition miss it when they're away from it.''

Campbell compares being born Catholic to being born American -- it remains part of your identity no matter where you end up.

''It's the beginning church in Christianity,'' he said. ''Once they're Catholics, the church never throws them away. Many of them, in their own hearts, it's just where they feel at home.''

End Adv for Friday, March 9

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