Welcoming those who were lost

A lamb sits around the neck of Pope Francis as he visits a Nativity scene at the Church of St. Alfonso Maria dei Liguori in Rome. Photo: CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters A lamb sits around the neck of Pope Francis as he visits a Nativity scene at the Church of St. Alfonso Maria dei Liguori in Rome. Photo: CNS/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters

It is disheartening when people walk away from the church.

Sometimes, when we try to talk, they run at us like some kid on the opposite team in a game of red rover. They want to break through our line and pull somebody else from the church. They may even attempt to pull us away.

We have a choice. When they run toward us, even if it is with a kind of adversarial spirit, we must be ready to receive them, ready to hold them tightly in our arms, ready to defend the faith, and maybe even ready to reclaim them for our Lord and his church. Red rover, red rover, send them on over, we pray.

It has happened to me many times. I write an article or post something on social media. Someone sends an email explaining why he is glad I am happy being Catholic, but he wants me to know that his choice was clear. It was time to walk away. Somebody disappointed him. Something someone did scandalized her. She lost the joy of being Catholic. He decided to walk away from God or just find God in some other faith community.

What if?
Many do build a relationship with Jesus somewhere else. Usually, it is in a church with a name that does not fit categories. No denomination. No labels. No hierarchy. They find a place where they can begin again. It feels wonderful and they are happy, they say.

It makes me think. I believe we all have reasons to be bitter and walk away. There are plenty of offenses to send us through the exit doors. Most of the ones who left didn’t hate the faith. There were just things that rubbed them the wrong way. Their love for the sacraments and the church was not enough to keep them here.

Sometimes it makes me wonder. Will my love endure? Am I strong enough to persevere when others scandalize the faith? If I encounter a priest who is far from pastoral or an administrator in a Catholic workplace who has more vices than virtues, will I stay?

What about the young Catholic whose spouse cheats — after sponsoring her husband into the faith? Will he have the strength to stay when she leaves their family and the church?

What about the young person who hears about a charitable organization squandering funds, and it becomes common knowledge that those who could have stopped the whole thing just looked the other way? Will the spiritually fragile young person stay after that?

What happens when a bishop or cardinal causes scandal? What will we do when a high profile Catholic falls off the pedestal in a very public way — or in a quiet way and nobody else has any idea?

Strong, loving arms
These are not made-up scenarios. For some people, these things were enough to send them in the opposite direction. For others, nothing would take them away from the Eucharist. The ones who stick around seem to have some things in common.

For them, truth is true, and God is God. If the church is the church in time, and devotions lead to holiness; if the saints light the way, and the Eucharist is Christ; if the word is alive, and the poor are fed, the lost are found, the sick are healed; if miracles still happen, and Christ still calls disciples; if angels still aid, and the confessional still cleanses; if martyrs still die, and others rise to take their places; if a still small voice can be heard above the betrayal, wounds and doubts — then the church is still the church.

In that moment we realize that God never fails, even when people sometimes do. And the person running toward us with division in her heart is really a lost lamb. A soul in need of strong arms that wrap around her and gather her back to the safety of the church.

Red rover, red rover. Send her on over.

She looks up, a bit disoriented, because she didn’t break through the line. She was, in fact, caught in loving arms. Hopefully, she sees a smile. A welcoming nod. Not gloating. Not condescension.

Make room for her at your side. Squeeze her hand a couple of times to let her know you are glad she’s back. And brace yourselves. Someone else is barreling at the line. But he is not the enemy either. Hold the line, and let it wrap around him — with love.

Denise Bossert

Denise Bossert is a member of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri. Contact her at denise02@centurytel.net.

Website: www.denisebossert.com