Program welcomes lapsed Catholics home WEST COLUMBIA

January 06, 1993|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

After Mike Savarese divorced eight years ago, he thought tha he and the Roman Catholic Church also were divorcing. Assuming he didn't belong anymore, Mr. Savarese stopped attending Mass.

But five years later, he participated in the "ReMembering Process," a program offered by St. John's Catholic Church in Columbia that reaches out to alienated Catholics.

After receiving an annulment of his first marriage during the program, he remarried at St. John's. Today, he and his wife, Peggy, are active church members, helping others return to the fold. "Although the rest of my life was pretty good, I felt something was missing," he said. "What was missing was the Church."

The Savareses are just two of 75 people who came back to the Catholic Church after participating in the program, which began its sixth year last night with an information session at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center and will meet weekly for the next three months.

Liturgy director Ann McDonald initiated the program after attending a workshop in New York on inviting alienated Catholics back to the church. The "ReMembering Process" offers a forum for the disenfranchised to voice anger, come to terms with past hurts and embrace church doctrine that has broadened in the past 30 years since the sweeping changes of Vatican II.

"They drifted away or felt real pain," said Ms. McDonald. "Be it because of a position of the church or the harshness of a minister, they felt they were not included.

"We can't take away the hurt, but by allowing the atmosphere for healing to take place, the church is apologizing. Or sometimes, a person thinks he has done something so unforgiveable. But the church is a loving institution and believes in a forgiving God that loves us no matter what we've done."

The group, which has ranged from six to 52 members per year, is led by Ms. McDonald and a team of clergy and lay people. This year's team includes two priests and five lay people -- four women and one man. Three of the lay people have gone through the program themselves.

"The process allows for people to look at their own stories," said Ms. McDonald. "We create the agenda, which is a result of what the needs of the group are. It's a real chance for openness to people's questions and to ask, 'Is this for me? Can I be comfortable?'

"An individual can work out his issues within a group process. There is real openness on the part of the leadership. There is no issue we are not willing to discuss."

There are only three guiding principles to the sessions, she said. "No judgments, confidentiality, and respect for each other's views -- there is room for all of us in the church."

Each person, or "journeyer," is assigned a companion, someone who recently returned to the church, with whom to talk and work out issues.

Judy Clancy, director of Community Outreach for the Domestic Violence Center in Columbia, will be a companion after returning to the faith last year. Although Ms. Clancy and her husband, Patrick, a Washington attorney, attended Catholic schools, they dropped out of the church before Vatican II.

At that time, "the emphasis was on rules and regulations," Ms. Clancy said. "What you couldn't do. It seemed to me to be the wrong emphasis."

Last year, they decided to see exactly how the church had changed since. "The church is in a better place than it used to be," she said. "It's more ecumenical, broader to all religions and philosophies. It's more directed to moral and social issues -- which is more attractive to me than the rules approach."

Although Ms. Clancy approached the sessions cynically, she participated in every one.

"I had loads of questions," she said. "I was pretty skeptical. I didn't think I'd stick through the whole thing and rejoin the church. But much to my surprise, that's just what I've done."

Both credit the program's "no-strings attached" credo with bringing them back.

"They let you know nothing is expected of you, you could drop out, and you won't hurt their feelings," Ms. Clancy said. "It was nonpressured, so I was able to go back each week."

Mr. Savarese, who initially rejected the program after attending only one meeting, agreed. "I wasn't ready, but at St. John's, they make it seem as if it's so nice to have you," he said.

The following year, the retired educator returned to complete the program. "I was ready to begin the journey. Not that it was easy, but it was attainable, you have not fallen out of grace. It's a healing process, a reconciliation," said Mr. Savarese, who served as a companion last year and returns as a team member this year.

Although Ms. Clancy and Ms. McDonald are not totally satisfied with church doctrine, including the limited role of women within the institution, each is willing to work out those issues within the church and the program.

"The process allows me to share my own frustrations and realize the church is not perfect," Ms. McDonald said. "But it's a matter if I choose to stay and work it out, or leave. I choose to stay."

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