Program to bring fallen away Catholics back to church takes flight at Redlands parish
By Natalie Romano
REDLANDS—“We are here for you,” Deacon Mike Bellinder explains as he makes eye contact with those seated around a large wooden table.
Looking back at him are men and women of different ages and backgrounds. Some take notes, some ask questions, some even cry, but all intently listen in a small, private room at The Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Redlands. Deacon Bellinder continues.
“Faith is a gift. If the gift isn’t opened, you miss out on something.”
And they don’t want to miss out any longer. That’s why they’ve joined Catholics Returning Home, a program designed to welcome back those who’ve lost connection to the Church. And there’s millions of them nationwide. The Pew Research Center says four out of ten Americans raised Catholic no longer follow the faith. Eileen McGuire of Mentone was one of them.
“I didn’t feel like people at church were very friendly. I just didn’t get the support I felt I needed.”
Parish leaders at Holy Name launched the ministry in response to people like McGuire and the lapsed Catholics in their own lives.
“People I grew up with have fallen away. What happened? That’s what I want to work on,” explains Tim Corcoran, a lay minister. “I heard that calling in the night and I’m following that calling.”
The Catholics Returning Home program was specifically chosen for its success at parishes like St. Kateri Tekakwitha in Beaumont and St. Anthony in Upland. Holy Name Pastoral Coordinator Deacon Steve Serembe held the same post at St. Anthony and can attest to the results. He said those who came back to the Church through Catholics Returning Home had a positive impact.
“They bring new life into a parish,” he said. “They are pretty joyful. They became engaged parishioners and nearly all got involved in ministry.”
Inspired, the team at Holy Name laid out a six week curriculum hoping to reach and teach those who want a way back. Corcoran wasn’t sure what kind of turnout they would get.
“We concluded early on if we got one person to come back to the Church it was a success. Instead we only lost one person. We had a core group of 21 people that attended. Everyone was invested, everyone was involved, everyone wanted to be here.”
Popular among them, Corcoran’s take on the famous Ted Talks, the online oratories that cover just about every subject under the sun. Here, lay ministers did a spiritual version by a similar name.
“Jesus Talks, the Holy Spirit sent it to me I think,” Corcoran smiles.
Topics included the pros and cons of Catholic guilt, bringing family back to the Church, and marriage annulment. The latter is important to those like McGuire whose first marriage ended in divorce.
“I tried at that time to seek an annulment. [My ex-husband] didn’t want to, though, so I gave up. I was told I couldn’t receive Communion.”
While most in the Redlands group had cut ties with the Church, some said they never had the connection in the first place.
“I’ve always been curious I could even say envious of those who knew their faith, knew where they belonged,” said Taryn Tracey.
While growing up, Tracey says her family expected good morals but Mass wasn’t a priority. She was given a choice; Catechism or dance class. Dance won the day but she now has different priorities.
“As I’m getting older and preparing to get married and have a family, I like the community the Church provides. I like its morals. I like what it teaches.”
Tracey says this program was a first step towards becoming a confirmed Catholic and she is enrolling in Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (R.C.I.A.) classes at Holy Name. That’s just the kind of result Corcoran wanted.
“Hopefully they (participants) will feel closer to God and have a better understanding,” he says. “I think that’s what any teacher wants to do; share the knowledge, stimulate the thinking and let the students come to their own answers.”
McGuire, too, has found her place; attending Mass and parish retreats. She’s even considering the annulment process again. McGuire says she’s “excited to go forward” and after 20 years away considers herself a practicing Catholic again.
“God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are definitely in my life. I’m very, very happy. I feel like I’m home. The people I connected with are wonderful.”
Natalie Romano is a freelance writer and a parishioner of The Holy Name of Jesus in Redlands.