How do we respond to the lapsed?

…Like this?!

Daily, I receive phone calls and emails from parents attempting every trick in the book to attempt to get their child into this year’s sacramental programmes. The list is open from April through to the end of June. Same as every year. Every communication brims with the same kind of excuses: “We’re away most weekends, I haven’t seen the newsletter”; “We attend such-and-such a church (usually C of E) whenever we’re away!”; “I’m sure you must know me, I used to read at the Saturday evening Mass”; “I had no idea the deadline was in June!”

Ask any parishioner – these announcements are made clearly (and tediously) every single weekend for months on end. The only conclusion I think we can come to is that these are not Mass-goers.

So how do we respond when your initial reaction is to give a blunt suggestion that they need to practise their faith? Allowing them onto the programme, from past experience of similar families who somehow fudge their way through, does not work, and causes distress for the catechist and the child when it is clear they are not coming to Mass at weekends and that the teaching is not supported at home.

My approach this year has been the firm but friendly email. I tell them that such-and-such a church is not Catholic and if they have any confusion about it, by all means, come in for a chat. I encourage them that the absolute best thing they can do for their child is start coming to Mass every week and then decide about the First Communion. I give them information on refresher courses in the Catholic faith which would be a great way back into practising again.

I wish I could say these little encounters end in the ‘happy-ever-after’ picture above… Sadly, this is rarely the case. Occasionally these warm, welcoming emails result in accusations that our parish is not “Christian” and they will go somewhere else, thank you very much. And at this announcement, I’m actually rather glad.

6 Responses

  1. I just love the picture you have to compliment and important post. I agree with your approach… patient, clear and firm. It sorts the wheat from the chaff. Keep up the good work.

  2. Tonia says:

    Our parish says yes to everyone as long as they’re baptized. We then include parents in the catechesis. There’s something in the parent that wants their child to receive the sacraments and I think it’s more than a desire for a school reference or a chance to see their child in a pretty white dress.

    The parents come from a generation of poorly formed Catholics. If you can keep in contact with the children through to your year long Confirmation programme (and then make it clear that the child can choose not to be Confirmed at the end) then at least the children have been given an opportunity to see what Catholicism is all about.

    If we limited our programmes to those that attend Mass regularly we’d have 10 children in each rather than 140-160.

  3. Paul Rodden says:

    The question for me is one filial or servile fear, family or institution.

    I’ve yet to meet a lapsed Catholic who knows even the basics of the Faith: whether Lapsed-to-None (‘I’m spiritual but not religious’) or Lapsed-to-Evangelical (‘I wasn’t being fed, but I now have a personal relationship with Jesus’). So, they haven’t left because they have ‘reasons’.

    Unfortunately, many in the pews (and I don’t think they can’t be blamed) are rarely any further forward, and so, change in priest = change in congregation. The priest has to provide comfort or entertainment or else there’s no other reason ‘to go to church’, and that’s the level they’re at.

    As someone on the edge of lapsing put it recently when I talked to her as sensitively as possible about the benefits of coming to understand the Faith: “No thanks. I’ll probably just find out more stuff that I ought to be doing that I’m not”, as if she’d find out it was a mortal sin not to wear a cilice 24/7 and whip herself daily.
    She was genuinely scared about what she anticipated as more emotional burdens (or baggage) she might be forced to carry the more she learnt.

    From general experience, too, the lapsed are often screwed up by the laxity/scrupulosity mixed-messages they’d had their heads filled with as kids, and so create a rationalisation (normally from Protestantism or Sister Dissentia (‘the nice nun’) who taught them RE in fifth-form, and more recently, the abuse scandal) to justify their escape from the stifling effects of that warped mindset they’ve introjected by not knowing any better.

    Some have taught them (or what they’ve heard is) that God is really like an irrational and fickle Flying Spaghetti Monster wanting to damn people to hell on a whim, others have taught them he’s like Santa Claus or Harvey the big white rabbit, but few have taught that he’s a Father and we are his adopted children and he loves us (in mercy AND justice) more than we can imagine.

    So sadly, if they’re Mass-goers, many still have a scrupulous fear of hell because missing Mass is a mortal sin – but they have no other reason to stay otherwise. They are not fearful of the cross so much as worn down by living year after year on guilt-tripping misinformation, urban legends, and superstition.

    That is, I believe the only difference seems to be that many Mass-goers just haven’t reached ‘the last straw’ which tips them over the edge into the lapsed.

    As you put it, it’s being a ‘we’ (how we respond). For the lapsed and many of the laity, priests and catechists are the ‘experts’, ‘above’ us, ‘part of the system’, etc., and so ‘not us’.

    I believe we desperately need laity who are not ‘officials’ but well-formed and so ‘ordinary’ or ‘natural’ catechists/evangelists, but that won’t happen until we can smash the clericalism and urban legends that prevent people from daring to look any deeper – and STOP ‘promoting’ everyone who shows the slightest interest or natural potential to that of an official whatever – or suggest religious life, priesthood, or the diaconate. (‘Why don’t you become a deacon?’ is the most annoying, and most frequent, questions I’m asked – especially when they attach it to the fact I’m married, and banal comments about understanding them better as a result!)

    That is, I think good formation starts best through friendship and not official systems (teacher-taught), but that the ‘systems’ supplement the enthusiasm generated to learn more…
    http://brandonvogt.com/wp-content/uploads/Dwight-Shrute.png

    Maybe, until that time when we have a faith community (rather than one of ‘experts’ at the top and clueless ‘pew-fodder’), we have to 1. be patient and try to treat the lapsed, who’ve – more often than not actually been shot by what they think is friendly fire – with compassion?, and 2. work like mad to make real friends with as many as we can within our congregations, because many of the lapsed will be the relatives or close friends of friends that we aren’t (yet) who can have a real impact simply through that connectedness.

  4. Stacey says:

    I’m really glad that parents – even if they are not practicing their faith – would want their children to learn about it. My parents are atheists, and I managed to get to the age of twenty without really knowing anything about Christianity. I’m really grateful for all the people who patiently answered my questions, and nudged me in the right direction. Perhaps these kids deserve a chance to learn about the fundamentals of faith – even if First Communion is not the right step at that time, you never know when the seeds that are planted may take fruit.

    • Hi! Thanks for all the amazing, insightful comments.
      Maybe our policy sounds harsh. I think the best way to explain it is that, much as I would love us to ‘take on’ every family and evangelise them, we are at our capacity with the families that we have. There is only me looking after all of the sacramental programmes. I would love if we had more staff, and perhaps we could offer a separate evangelisation ‘pathway’ for families who were not yet fully practising. Right now, I think the harm (of children and families receiving sacraments they are not ready for) would be greater than the good achieved.
      Just some thoughts…

      • Paul Rodden says:

        I think you’ve got it about right. I think you’re brave to take the stance you do. I think it’s a shame they don’t realise how lucky they are having such a knowledgeable, capable and friendly catechist to help them develop a healthy relationship with Christ.

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