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New program welcomes Catholics home

By Lisa Schulte
The Catholic Voice

Carolyn Davis was through with the Catholic Church. Thirteen years ago, she left angry, confused and hurt. But last September, she returned to the faith of her childhood and isn't looking back.

"I'm happy," said Davis, now a parishioner at St. James in Omaha.

Davis credits her return to the Catholic Church to her mother's prayers and to her involvement in Catholics Returning Home, a six-week support program aimed at helping non-practicing Catholics return to the Church.

According to founder Sally Mews, Catholics Returning Home is designed "to invite people back, make them feel welcome, allow them the opportunity to vent their comments and concerns in a safe manner."

It also helps to update them on the basics of Catholicism, and to reconnect them to a parish, Mews writes in her book, "Inviting Catholics Home."

Right now, eight Omaha parishes are hosting the program. They are St. Benedict the Moor, St. Bernard, St. Bridget and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. Margaret Mary, St. Philip Neri and St. Stephen the Martyr. Mary Our Queen is using a different program, but it's similar to Catholics Returning Home.

Some parishes will hold the sessions again at Easter and when school starts in the fall because those are times when the call to return is felt most strongly, Mews said.

The first sessions are devoted to small-group faith sharing and storytelling while the other sessions focus on the Church today, Mass, Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Nicene Creed. All sessions are free.

Faith journey

Davis' journey of faith involved some interesting twists. Raised Catholic in Kansas, she attended Mass regularly with her family, but became less active after she moved away from home. Although she got married outside of the Church, her marriage was blessed and she continued to go to Mass. But after going through a personal crisis, a negative encounter with a priest and questioning her faith, she left the Catholic Church and for many years wasn't involved in any church.

A family crisis drew her to the Presbyterian Church where she eventually became an elder. Four and a half years later, she and her family stopped going to church once again.

It wasn't until her youngest daughter expressed an interest in becoming Catholic that Davis started thinking about the Catholic Church again. The two began to go to Mass together, and Davis realized there were many things about the Catholic Church that she had missed such as the sacraments, Holy water, and kneeling – something members of the Presbyterian Church don't do.

"There's something about kneeling that when you humble yourself before God, it just brings you closer," she told The Catholic Voice.

It was in the parish bulletin that she read about Catholics Returning Home.

"I thought, 'This is just what I need to kind of make myself feel more comfortable in the Church,'" Davis said.

She attended the program's fall session, while two of her daughters got involved in the RCIA program. They made their profession of faith in December.

Ministry of compassion

Some Catholics leave the Church because of anger and hurt, just like Davis. Others leave because of ignorance or boredom or because they marry people of another faith or go through a divorce.

Considering there are about 20 million non-practicing Catholics in the United States today, it is important to reach out and welcome them back, Mews said.

Oftentimes when they want to return, they're afraid of being rejected, she said.

"They need to feel that the Church wants them back and will take them back without putting them through a lot of red tape," she said.

Catholics Returning Home makes that possible.

"The answer is always compassion first," writes Mews. "Jesus was a tremendously compassionate person. He refused mercy to no one. He put people first over law."

Davis said she was encouraged to share as much or as little as she wanted during the sessions and felt no pressure to return to the Church.

"It felt very open and you were free to ask questions," she said.

Many of the program's facilitators, such as Jerry Kozney, can relate to the participants' struggles because they've been there, too.

"There's enough experience and love there to help them through," said Kozney, program coordinator at St. Stephen the Martyr. "I know what it's like to be away from the Church, to be away from Christ's body in Communion, and I know what it's like to be truly lonely when you're away from the Church."

Once they do decide to become active again, they are invited to share their talents with their parish.

"We want them to know that the Catholic Church is incomplete without them," said Jo Kusek, who coordinates the program at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

Along with joining her parish's prayer group, Davis assists with funeral dinners and is a member of the cleaning committee.

"I just really enjoyed it," she said. "It helped me to kind of make that return, and I met friends along the way."

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