In Lenten pastoral letter, Archbishop encourages Catholics to invite family, friends to return home to Church
Tuesday, February 17, 2009 11:42 PM
Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl has written a pastoral letter for Lent urging Catholics "to invite back to Church, back to Mass, someone you know who has drifted or walked away from the Church."
Priests urge Catholics to join Lenten campaign of inviting loved ones to come home to Church
By Mark Zimmermann
In an interview just before his ordination to the priesthood in 1989, Father Rory Conley noted that as a young adult, he had been away from the Church for about eight or nine years. He said that, like many young people, he went through a phase in his life where he was not interested in God or religion. But, he added, "the simple answer for why I returned is the grace of God."
Now he serves as the pastor of St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, and he said in an interview this week that he is happy that Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl is launching a Lenten campaign to encourage local Catholics to invite family members or friends who may have drifted from the faith to come home to the Catholic Church.
"It's an excellent idea. From my experience, for the people who are practicing the faith, it's a great sadness when family members and friends don't," the priest said. "This (Lenten campaign) is providing a practical way for them to let their relatives and friends know about their desire for them to come back."
Father Conley said he also likes the idea that the invitation that people will pass on is from both them and from Archbishop Wuerl, whose note reads, "You are an important part of our family, and, like any family, when one person is missing, the family does not feel complete."
"The invitation is from him and indicates his concern about all the people we'd like to have back in the churches," the parish priest said.
St. John Neumann parishioners do door-to-door evangelization in nearby neighborhoods twice a year, and Father Conley said if people trust in God and try to follow His will, God will bless their efforts.
"It (inviting people back) is part of being faithful to the Gospel, to want people to participate in the life of the Church, and the sacraments," he said. "It's an act of charity to invite them to come back. It's a work of mercy."
A Southern Maryland pastor, Father David Russell, agrees. Inviting people back home to the Church is part of a Christian's call to live and love as Jesus did, he said.
"There's a lot of people away from the Church, with a lot of misunderstandings... If we understand what Jesus was about, and if we're truly His followers, then we want Him to get as many people in heaven as we can," he said.
Father Russell, the pastor of St. Anthony Parish in North Beach, said it was very inspiring for him as a priest to participate in the "Light is On for You" Lenten program the past two years, when priests throughout the archdiocese heard Confessions on Wednesday evenings. He shared the joy of people who came back to the Church after being away for decades. In a column for the Catholic Standard, he noted that he also a pack of Kleenex in the confessional, for anyone who cried during their Confession. Like all priests, his words to them as they left were, "Go in peace!"
"To be able to reconcile people with God, and to give them His Body (at Mass), that's what it's all about. Those are two of the highlights of being a priest," he said.
That point was echoed by Father Ron Potts, the pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in La Plata. "That's one of the great graces of the priesthood, celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation and seeing the great burden lifted off their shoulders by the Lord through this sacrament," he said. "We saw a great increase in the number of people coming to Confession and returning to the Church. That's what made 'The Light is On for You' so great."
He too thinks the new Lenten campaign of inviting people to return home to the Catholic Church is "an excellent idea. Many people have drifted away from the Church, maybe they've been hurt or disappointed. You want to reach out and bring them back in."
People pray for their loved ones who've drifted away, and the Lenten campaign offers them "a concrete way of inviting them back," he said. Priests and lay people alike are called to be welcoming, said the priest, who noted that every knock on the rectory door or phone call might be someone seeking help or wanting to come home to the faith.
Father Potts said when people become reconciled with the Church, "they're then encouraged and enabled to live the life the Lord is calling them to."
And he said that in challenging economic times, many people are coming to realize that material possessions and worldly power are passing things, while the Church offers a message of Christ's hope for today and for eternity. "The only thing we can count on is God and the gift of our faith," he said.
Msgr. Charles Pope, the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Church in Washington, said he also had the moving experience of having people return to practicing the faith after being away for decades, following their receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation during the "Light is On for You Campaign."
And he said he also had the realization "that I'm reaping a harvest sown by others, who for years have been praying for someone to come back" to the Church.
This year's Lenten campaign of inviting people to return home to the Catholic Church is "absolutely essential," he said, noting that according to some surveys, less than one-third of Catholics attend Mass every Sunday. "We've got be very serious about calling people home," he said.
Jesus called His followers to share the faith, the pastor said, but he added that people need to reach out in a spirit of love. "To me, the most fundamental (thing) is to speak the truth to each other in love," he said.
Another pastor noted that the new Lenten campaign offers a continuation of the "Light is On for You" effort.
"It's a neighbor-to-neighbor effort to invite people to come back to their worshiping community, to take a second look," said Msgr. Peter Vaghi, the pastor of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda.
The priest added that, "Through the Church and through the sacraments, we're drawn closer to Christ and given a sense of hope and confidence in the Lord Jesus that only the Church can offer."
The new Lenten campaign offers "an invitation to God's grace," Msgr. Vaghi said. He recommended that people who want to invite a family member or loved one to return home to the Catholic faith can draw strength to do so by the traditional Lenten practices of prayer and fasting.
"God is the one, who through the grace of the Holy Spirit, invites someone home," he said.
"To be a Catholic is to share the joy of our faith with them by inviting them once again to reconnect with their Church and with the life-giving sacraments," Archbishop Wuerl wrote in his pastoral. He also said that "many of us probably know someone like that, those who just drifted away, or felt they had a good reason to walk away. Whatever their motive for leaving, it is time we invited them home."
The complete text of the letter is o available on-line at the Archdiocese of Washington's Website, www.adw.org .
In his letter - titled Belonging to God's Family - Archbishop Wuerl suggests Catholics first invite to return to the Church family and friends who may have drifted away.
"What a fruitful goal it would be for this Lenten season to invite back, beginning perhaps with those closest to us, someone who may have drifted away from the faith," the archbishop wrote. "It is difficult to think of a more significant personal missionary activity for ourselves and a better gift for another than to encourage someone to come back to their spiritual home."
Dated Jan. 25, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, and released this week in time for the start of Lent, the letter is addressed to the clergy, religious and laity of the Archdiocese of Washington.
"For us and those who long to see Christ fully, they must be with their faith family, the Church," Archbishop Wuerl said in his letter. "For this to happen we need to have a way to ask them."
The "way to ask them," as outlined in the pastoral, is in the form of a pre-printed card bearing the archbishop's personal invitation to return to the Church. The invitations will be available in every church during Lent.
"The invitations are from both of us. They are meant for you to give to someone else," the archbishop wrote in his pastoral. "You can tell that person that I asked you to pass it along. The message is simple: 'If you have been away, please come back. You are an important part of our family and we miss you.' "
In his letter, Archbishop Wuerl said the campaign will be promoted on billboards and signs across the archdiocese. It will also be featured on Metro cars and buses, in newspapers, on radio, and on a special YouTube video.
"We are running these advertisements for two reasons. First, we want to remind ourselves that we are all always longing for God. While we may know Christ and be active in our parish, we still long for a deeper relationship with God," Archbishop Wuerl wrote. "Secondly, we want to propose this question, 'What are you longing for?' to those who are away from the Church... We would like gently to point out to them, in the end, it is God who will satisfy them."
In his letter, Archbishop Wuerl said Lent is the perfect time to invite those who have left the Church to return.
"Lent, as we prepare for Easter and reflect on what our faith means to us, is a time to invite others who are not at Mass any more to rejoin our Church family," he wrote. "This Lent, across the archdiocese we will make a special effort to say to our family, our friends and our neighbors who no longer attend Mass, 'We miss you. You used to be with us at Mass on Sunday. We invite you back to your home - your spiritual home.'"