Today there are about 32 million Americans who were raised in the Catholic faith but have separated from the Church and are no longer practicing. Some leave over disagreements about Church doctrine or because they simply become disenchanted with the Church of their upbringing. For others, however, their separation is the result of being hurt by a member of the Church. Being hurt by the Church can be especially painful because it was created by Christ to bring people to Him, not drive them away.
There are many different situations where someone could feel hurt by the Church, from feeling unwelcome to serious abuse. Every situation is different, but everyone who has been hurt by a member of the Church needs to experience the love and compassion of Christ through us. If you know someone who has been hurt by a member of the Church, here are some ways to reach out to them.
Empathy. Acknowledge that they are hurting and try to understand how their negative experience made them feel. Saying “The Church is perfect but all people are sinful” is a true statement, but starting out with that can sound dismissive and make it seem as though you care more about defending the reputation of the Church than about the wounds of your loved one. As Pope Francis said,
“You have to heal the wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds. Heal the wounds.”
Clarify misunderstanding. It may be that a person leaves the Church because they have misunderstood or been mislead regarding a teaching or practice of the Church. Perhaps they think, or have been told, that if they are divorced they have committed a mortal sin and are no longer welcome to receive the Eucharist. Or maybe they think the Church hates gay people because she does not allow or endorse same-sex marriage. Neither of these are true, but they are misunderstandings that can certainly lead someone away from the Church. If there was hurt caused by a misunderstanding of Church teaching, try to explain and clarify what the Church actually teaches. If you don’t have an answer, it’s OK to say, “That doesn’t sound right. Let me look into it and get back to you.” Catholic Answers is a great resource for learning what and why the Church teaches what she does, and can help you in clarifying any misunderstandings.
Seek justice. If someone was hurt by a member of the Church it is important that things be made right. If the hurt is the result of an argument or unkind comment, apologies should be made to the person who was unjustly hurt. If it involves abuse, it is important that the abuse is reported. Contact your local police authorities immediately. If the abuse involves a minor, also contact your state’s Department of Children and Family Services.
Help in the healing process. Healing takes time, and when trust is broken it needs to be rebuilt. Be willing to walk along the journey with them, realizing that it may take some time. If you feel like you can’t give your loved one the support they need, put them in contact with someone you trust who can help them in the healing process. And pray for healing every day. God wants to pour His grace into those who are hurting, as Scripture tells us:
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” – Psalm 147:3
Be a witness. Many people leave the Church because they see Church members who are hypocritical. So strive to be a living witness of Christ in the world. This doesn’t mean you are a failure if you aren’t perfect all the time; but when you do wrong, admit it and work to be better. Through humility and charity, try to bring Christ to all you meet, especially those who have been hurt by members of His Church.
Invite them to come home. The Catholic Church has the sacraments that Jesus instituted to pour out His grace on us, including His very own body and blood in the Eucharist. It is a tragedy if the actions of a Church member keep people from accessing these sacraments. So no matter how long your loved one has been away from the Catholic Church, invite them to come home. Let them know about a Catholics Come Home program in your area. They may not take you up on your first invitation, but continue to let them know that they are always welcome whenever they are ready to return.