A heavy cross: Seeing loved ones leave the faith is difficult but can be overcome through prayer and formation
April 8, 2022
JoAnne Raleigh has prayed for decades for family members to return to the Catholic Church, including her husband who drifted away for 40 years but came back in a big way; a brother who left the Church when he married decades ago but recently returned; and currently for her children, nieces and nephews who have strayed from the faith.
Jerry Hassett has realized that he needs to fix himself before possibly helping his children return to the Catholic faith. He wants to be a better listener, he said, and break some bad habits. “I think I scared them away from the Church,” Hassett said.
“Rose,” a woman who preferred to remain anonymous for the sake of her children, remembers her sadness and even shame when four of her five adult children didn’t receive Holy Communion when the family gathered at Mass on holidays. They couldn’t because they were no longer in communion with the Church. The mother, who treasures her faith, taught a baptism class at her parish, “and here I am praying that my grandkids would be baptized.”
“Ann,” another person who chose to remain anonymous, said she and her husband grew disheartened, frustrated and sad because years of prayers and efforts to raise their children as Catholics didn’t seem to have an effect on them. “The devil was very effective at stealing our joy from us,” her husband said.
All four people share an increasingly common heartache: having a loved one separated from the Catholic faith and from God.
“Everybody knows somebody who’s left the Church,” Raleigh said. “Everybody.”
She formed a St. Monica group at her parish, St. Leo the Great in Omaha, to pray for such souls.
To see a loved one separated from God can be excruciating, said Maura Kellar of St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion, where her husband, Robert, serves as a deacon.
That soul “is so precious, and the salvation of that soul is so important,” Kellar said. A person who is away from the Church doesn’t understand those truths, she said, nor the pain of those praying for their return.
“And that’s where our compassion needs to come in,” she said.
Kellar has made praying for her children and the children of others an apostolate. She and other mothers wear bracelets to remind themselves to pray – and to remember that others are praying with them.
In the United States the statistics on fallen away Catholics are alarming.
Catholics accounted for about a fifth of the total U.S. population in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center, while 13% of U.S. adults were former Catholics.
For every convert to the Catholic faith, 6.5 people had fallen away, the research said.
Fortunately there are ways to help those who’ve strayed.
ST. MONICA CAN HELP
About six years ago, Raleigh formed the St. Monica prayer group at St. Leo. She modeled the group after one she’d visited at her daughter’s church in Colorado.
The St. Leo group meets at the church on first Tuesdays of the month, from 6:30 to 7 p.m., during eucharistic adoration. They welcome people to join them.
They pray a Rosary and intercessory prayers to St. Monica, as well as prayers for vocations to religious life.
About 10 people are regularly part of the group.
Raleigh can relate to St. Monica, who lived in the fourth century and prayed fervently for the faith of wayward family members, including her son, Augustine of Hippo. He converted, thanks in part to his mother’s prayers, and became a saint and doctor of the Church.
Raleigh prayed for 40 years for her husband’s return to the Catholic faith. Jim Raleigh had been a lifelong Catholic who attended a Catholic grade school and high school. He stopped going to Mass when he was in the Marine Corps and remained away until about 10 years ago.
“I prayed for him for many years because he’s a good person,” JoAnne Raleigh said of her husband. “He just fell away.”
“When he did come back, he jumped in with two feet,” she said. He not only worshiped at Mass each Sunday, but also became active in the Knights of Columbus at St. Leo and helped clean the church.
JoAnne Raleigh credits the prayers of the St. Monica group for her brother Jim’s return to the Catholic Church. He left about 45 years ago when he married a Lutheran woman and joined her denomination.
After some faith struggles and his wife’s death, Jim made his way back to the Catholic faith.
“There was a period in their lives when my brother and sister-in-law were very angry at God,” Raleigh said. “They had prayed for something, and it didn’t come about. There was a lot of anger there, and for him to let that anger go and come back was a very good thing.”
Now Raleigh is interceding for her three children and their children.
NEW PROGRAM, NEW HOPE
A new program in the archdiocese, called Return, has made Hassett rethink his attempts to draw his children back into the Catholic faith.
“It really made me realize I need to focus on fixing myself,” he said of the seven-class program that was held in February and March at his parish, St. Thomas More in Omaha. About 50 people participated.
Return helped make it “increasingly clear that what I had done while my kids were in high school probably wasn’t ever going to bear any fruit. I was still treating them as little kids. I expected them to go to Mass, and there wasn’t a lot of room for discussion.”
The Return classes – based on the book “Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church” by Brandon Vogt – helped participants like Hassett better understand why their loved ones left the Church and how to handle those difficult conversations.
Reflecting back, “Ann” said she wasn’t good at listening to her children as they began abandoning their faith. “I thought that if I would say the right thing, everything would change.”
Return has given her a new outlook – a release – she said. “I know God is in charge, and it’s not on my back. It will be his timing, not mine.”
“My job right now is to love them and wait,” thanking God for his help, Ann said. “God can do amazing things, despite our faults, weaknesses and mistakes. Even when I’ve given up, he’s still working.”
“I can’t make them fall in love with anyone,” she said of her children. “They have to fall in love with Jesus. That is my prayer for them. That’s what I want for them.”
Hasset said Return helped him see a bigger picture.
“I came out of there realizing this program is wonderful to set the tone of how we should be treating everybody,” he said. Preparing people to evangelize their loved ones “prepares us to evangelize to anyone.”
Organizers hope the Return program will spread throughout the archdiocese. Return has been spreading nationally since it was formed in 2016 by Molly Schorr, a parish director of religious education in Minnesota, as well as a speaker and retreat facilitator.
T.J. Simpson, director of evangelization at St. Thomas More and St. Joan of Arc parishes in Omaha, said the program fits in well with the archdiocese’s focus on equipping parishioners as missionaries to be sent into the world, particularly through small group formation.
Simpson encouraged Return participants to stay in contact with the people they met in their small groups at class.
“The way we’ve always done it,” relying on Church institutions to evangelize, “hasn’t been working,” he said. “It’s kind of a sad reality.”
People are starving spiritually, Simpson said.
“People really want to know Jesus,” he said. But it’s a lot harder to help them “if we go at it alone.”
“Pope Benedict said evangelization starts with small groups of convicted believers who then look outwards,” Simpson said. “So that’s what we’re doing here in Omaha.”
Participants shared their concerns about their loved ones with each other.
“I don’t think any of us prepared as parents on how anti-Christian society would become and how much it would affect our children,” said “Rose” during class. “I think we’re in a war. We didn’t even know we were in a war until it was too late.”
“St. Paul says our battle is with principalities and powers,” Simpson told her. “There’s demons at work.”
The Church has always been at war with secular culture, he said. “But we as Catholics are called to be more like Christ,” to live with the same joy Jesus had, and to keep looking for truth, Simpson said.
Kathy and Marty Pflug, of St. Thomas More Parish, helped bring Return to the archdiocese.
Marty Pflug said his hope was that Return would restore joy to participants who may have felt sad or despondent, to increase their faith and love for Christ, “wherever their kids or loved ones are” in their faith.
“I regained my joy and quit living in shame,” Rose said. During prayerful reflection at class, Jesus reminded her: “Trust in me now, as you have in the past.”
Return teaches participants to build trust with their loved ones, who have often learned to mistrust the Church and its teachings, Simpson said. Students are taught to ask their loved ones deep questions, striving to start conversations that could lead them to God.
“It’s going to feel slow,” he said of the conversion process. “There’s no secret to making it happen.”
REMINDER ON A WRIST
Kellar, of St. Columbkille, began wearing a bracelet years ago to remind herself throughout the day to pray for one of her children who was struggling with faith while in college.
She said it prompted her to pray every time she saw it or felt it.
She knew her other child needed prayers, too. “And I put on another bracelet. So I wore two bracelets for a long time.”
Now one bracelet suffices, Kellar said, but she still likes to have a visual reminder to pray.
After meeting Kathy Pflug at a Christians Encounter Christ event, the two exchanged bracelets and prayers. They continue to give bracelets to other mothers and their list of children to pray for grows.
“I’ve given out multiple kinds of bracelets,” Kellar said. She buys them in bulk. They tend to be a chain of pearls or hearts, with a cross or medal of Mary on it.
“It’s a nice little ministry, this bracelet group,” Kellar said. “We pray for each other’s children. … We just pray for all of them.”