Catholics who drifted away invited to 'come home'

March 02, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

"Come back to me with all your heart. Don't let fear keep us apart."

The familiar words from the "Hosea" hymn carry the message of the five-day mission that began Sunday at St. John Catholic Church.

The Rev. Arthur F. Valenzano, pastor to the 3,700 families in the Westminster parish, calls the mission "an opportunity for homecoming."

The mission, led by two priests visiting St. John's, calls to those who attend Mass regularly, as well as to those who have drifted away from the church of their baptism.

The Rev. Thomas Siconolfi of Annapolis and the Rev. John Murray of New Jersey prefaced the services with an invitation to "come back home."

"We are praying this week for those who have fallen away," said Father Siconolfi. "Invite your family members and friends who have drifted away. For every four who return to church, three say they came because of an invitation."

Before opening the mission Sunday, Father Murray met with a group of 15 nonpracticing Catholics.

He began the discussion with a prayer for "those searching for a place in the community of believers. We invite you back and will see what we can do for you."

He encouraged frank talk and made himself available for private interviews throughout his stay.

"If you want to go further, call me," he said. "I will talk, work and pray with you. The church always stands with its arms open."

Father Murray said Gallup polls list "huge numbers" of baptized Catholics who no longer practice their religion. "Of the about 15 million nonpracticing Catholics, half would come back," he said. "Many may be away for the wrong reasons and misinformation."

Discussion participants, who asked for anonymity, said they had been absent from the sacraments for many years. One man said he had "no courage to go to confession."

Confessing sins can be the first and the most difficult step on the trip home, said Father Valenzano. Healing is found in the sacrament of reconciliation, when a penitent seeks advice from the priest.

"Let us heal those wounds," he said. "Everything is viewed with compassion."

Father Murray added, "Confess and move on. Don't be controlled by what is past."

The priests listened intently and did not interrupt the long pauses between individual stories. In the two-hour session, nearly all the participants revealed their reasons for leaving and wanting to return.

Many were raised Catholic and married in the church, but divorce and remarriage in another faith led to an abandonment of Catholicism.

"I want to know my standing with the church," said a woman who had married outside the church. "It would relieve a great burden in my heart."

Father Murray said Catholics don't differ from the rest of the population in the number of divorces.

"A divorced person is not excommunicated," said the priest. "If you remarry after your divorce, you are still welcome in church, but you may not receive Communion until the second marriage is blessed."

A Catholic has the option of seeking an annulment -- a declaration from the church tribunal that the sacrament of marriage did not exist in the first marriage.

Although valid and legal, the first marriage may have lacked the sacramental effect based on understanding, free will and maturity.

"The marriage always took place but the tribunal decides whether there was a sacrament," said Father Murray.

About 80 percent of all annulments are granted, he said: "Annulment can be painful but healing."

The investigation and procedure usually costs about $500, said Father Valenzano. The fee can be adjusted for those who can't afford it.

"New birth comes from it," he said.

One woman wanted to return for the sake of her children. "I would like to give my children the opportunity to look at the faith and see if they would choose it," she said.

Another woman left 30 years ago over birth control and is still "at odds over what I believe and what the church says."

The priests said participants raised issues with no easy answers.

"We can work with you all," said Father Murray.

From past experience with similar groups, Father Murray said he expects these first steps will lead many participants back to church.

"They might not speak to me before I leave, but they are thinking about coming home," he said.

The mission continues at 7:30 p.m. tonight and concludes with Mass at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow. The church is at 43 Monroe St. Information: 848-4744.

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