ELDERSBURG - St. Joseph's Catholic Community opened its doors Sunday to inactive members, welcoming them back and embracing their problems.
Bishop P. Francis Murphy, vicar of the Baltimore archdiocese, joined the pastor and several church officers, encouraging former members to voice their concerns and criticisms.
"We all have God's words within us," said the bishop to about 15 inactive Catholics attending the informal session. "I came to listen to God speaking in human words."
The bishop, who represents 42 parishes that extend from Carroll and Howard counties to the western limits of the state, said he considers parish experience essential to keeping in touch with people.
In an average parish with about 2,000 active members, another 800 are not attending Mass on a weekly basis, said Patricia Barbernitz, pastoral associate for Christian information.
"We are really interested in those people and want to know what has happened to them," she said.
Barbernitz and other members of the parish's Adult Education Committee conceived the idea for the session and invited the bishop about two months ago.
Jean Rupert, who said she "came back" to St. Joseph's seven years ago after a 15-year absence following a divorce, was the first to speak. Now part of the St. Joseph's Another Look Team, she assists alienated Catholics.
"I felt like I was in a time warp," she said about her absence. "I was full of doubts. It's much better to get your questions out. Maybe something you thought was a problem isn't really a problem any more."
The bishop said misinformation often keeps people inactive, and programs such as Another Look can help dispel doubts.
Several of those attending said remarriage after divorce kept them away from their church. Although alienated, many said they still felt the pull of Catholicism.
"The rules allowed me to get a divorce, but not to remarry" said Jacquie Berry-Garrity, who remarried nine years after divorcing her first husband.
"The church should understand the gray areas and help us so we don't have to give up our faith."
John Hevey said he had left the church after his marriage to a non-Catholic 16 years ago. He came to the meeting at the invitation of several parishioner friends.
"The church places too much emphasis on negativism," he said, adding he wanted to spare his children the guilt-oriented education of his own childhood. "You should go to church because you want to, because it's part of what you are."
Since Vatican II, a worldwide council of bishops, the church has abandoned the old "pay, pray and obey syndrome," said Murphy, and developed a greater sense of community participation.
Joseph Hlubik, a student at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore, working at the parish, said participants expressed issues with which all Catholics struggle.
Godfrey Jarabak, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church here, said he also was trying to discover why people become inactive, adding he thought highly of the neighboring church and its sensitivity to parishioners' needs.
Bishop Murphy said he was grateful to all those who participated in the discussion, calling the questioning a valid experience. He said he hoped to take part in future sessions in other parishes, encouraging all inactive Catholics to attend.
"How much of an enrichment they all would be to our community," he said.
"We need them in our midst."