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Open-door policy helps to encourage lapsed Catholics to return home and into the fold

ROMEOVILLE, Ill. (Catholic Explorer) - Matt Gross of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Joliet recently shared his inspiration for initiating a welcoming program for non-practicing Catholics at his parish. A nagging question persists in the mind of the senior citizen almost every time he attends church with his wife Dolores. He is curious about the Catholics that are not participating in the sacraments, and wonders if they are just waiting for an invitation to return.

Gross and his wife recently decided to take action and open the door. The member of the Knights of Columbus said, “We noticed Catholics don’t do a good job of inviting people back to the church.”

The couple formed a committee of representatives from St. Paul the Apostle and St. Patrick parishes. The committee consulted other parishes, such as St. Jude Parish in New Lenox, that have already established programs. It selected the six-week “Catholic Returning Home” curriculum, created by Sally Mews of Chicago. The program is set to launch Jan. 10 at St. Paul the Apostle Parish. It will conclude the final three weeks at St. Patrick Parish. Gross hoped, “It may be the thing that brings them back.”

Back by invitation

An invitation was what prompted Judy Restivo to return to St. Joan of Arc Parish in Lisle after a 25-year hiatus. The single mother of an adult child credited Deacon Tom Richardt with providing the gentle nudge she needed to return. She acknowledged, “I think I needed the invitation.”

While participating in the program about a year ago, Restivo said she enjoyed learning about the changes in the church as well as clearing up any misconceptions she had previously held. The group of about eight participants formed a friendly relationship with each other as well as the coordinators of the program. She concluded, “I now consider the door open and inviting. I know I have friends at St. Joan of Arc that I could call and to go to church with.”

The Lisle parish is set to start its seventh session Jan. 14. Deacon Richardt, who started the program in 2006 at St. Joan of Arc Parish, said, “We’re just as enthusiastic about it as we were three years ago” when they started planning. The faith community offers the program three times a year—after Christmas, after Easter and in the fall. He commented on attendance, “If we just get one that shows up, it’s worth it.”

The first part of the program emphasizes a welcoming atmosphere, explained Deacon Richardt. There are more than a dozen parishioners that serve on the ministry’s committee and they share their journeys of faith, he noted. The second part re-introduces people to the rituals of the church—explains changes, walks through sacraments, offers a behind-the-scenes tour. He noted, “It’s not to give them more religious education, it’s to be more comfortable.”

Something’s missing in their life’

Another deacon that serves on the Catholics Returning Home team at St. Mary of Gostyn Parish in Downers Grove, Deacon Bob Miciunas, commented that the last two years have been rewarding as he has facilitated three sessions a year. He stated, “It is just something special to be with other people, most you may not know, and to be able to share your faith journey, to help others realize that they are not alone in their struggles with their faith and that there are people in the church that are willing to help them find their way back.”

No two sessions are alike, he added. Deacon Miciunas stated, “No matter how we prepared, or how we anticipated what will happen, or how many people will attend, the work of the Holy Spirit always took hold. … It’s always a surprise too as to how many people may or may not attend and the cross section of people that do attend.”

While the participants are diverse, there is one common bond, added Deacon Mike McGuire of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Bolingbrook, who introduced the program to his parish in 2006. He said, “All of them are looking for something. It’s clear to me that they feel like something’s missing in their life.”

Whether or not he sees the participants in the pews on Sunday is not how he gauged the success of the six sessions. Deacon McGuire said he has seen participants turn into very active members of the church, while others he has seldom caught a glimpse of their faces. He reasoned, “It doesn’t mean you haven’t planted the seed that’s going to come to fruition.”

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This story was made available to Catholic Online by permission of the Catholic Explorer(www.catholicexplorer.com), official newspaper of the Diocese of Joliet, Ill.

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