Welcoming Catholics Home is a parish based program that is an invitation to those who have been away from the Church to come home to their Catholic faith. The program fosters a nonthreatening, no obligations environment where those who have been away from the faith can speak openly about some of the issues that may be holding them back from returning. Through presentations and discussions the Welcoming Catholics Home team will try to answer those concerns. The team will also be providing some basic teachings on different areas of the faith. Participants coming back will be able to speak with people who have had many of the same questions that they have: Catholics who were away and felt God calling them home. They have never been happier. We want to meet you, to listen to you and to talk with you and try answer any questions you may have about coming home to the Catholic faith. For a general outline of how the program works see this article from Parable Magazine about how the program is run at the original parish: Article in the Diocese of Manchester Parable Magazine describing the program at the original parish
To start a Welcoming Catholics Home program in your parish, there are some basic steps:
1) Form a Welcoming Catholics Home committee who will organize the program.
People who are needed on the committee (note, people can take more than one role, but about 4 or 5 people would be advised):
- Someone to chair the committee, who keeps everyone on track, keeps the pastor informed and gets the necessary permissions for expenses.
- Someone to be in charge of advertising: advertising/articles in local papers, creating brochures, bulletin announcements, distributing flyers etc.
- Someone in charge of coordinating refreshments at meetings.
- Someone in charge of coordinating prayer support for the program.
- Someone to order materials (if you decide to purchase materials to hand out)
- Someone to coordinate facilitators for the various sessions (note, it is helpful if facilitators are part of the committee, but not totally necessary)
- Someone to be a contact person for people interested who need more information
2) People needed to run the program (see outline of the program below):
- An “master of ceremonies” who will introduce the program and the speakers (usually this is job is taken by the chair of the committee)
- A person at the registration table to talk participants and to register their contact info.
- A few people to chat with individuals to get a sense of who they are and what some of the issues are (one-on-one). If you have too many people for the number of participants, have them quietly leave. You don’t want to overwhelm the participants.
- A few people who have themselves returned to the faith after having been away to share their story
- A priest of the parish for the second session.
- Facilitators for each of the other sessions.
- People to drop off cookies and other refreshments and someone to make coffee/tea etc.
3) Sample Outline of Sessions:
Each session starts out with registration and light refreshments. It is important to get contact information so you can follow up with people. It is also important that people wear nametags.
Sessions one and two are always used; later sessions depend on the people returning and what their needs are.
Session one: Why people leave and why they come back.
This session is an introduction to the program led by the team and laity only. There should be no ordained ministers or religious present, since some of the participants’ issues may stem from negative experiences with the ordained or religious. The MC then introduces the program, invites everyone to confidentiality (what is shared in the meeting, stays in the meeting) and informs the participants that there are only laity present. This is to allow participants to feel free to share their stories. The MC briefly shares some of the most common reasons why people leave and why they return. The MC then introduces several people who have left but have come back to the Church and invites them to give a witness talk (These talks should be shared with the team beforehand to be sure that they are on point). If possible, it is helpful to have people with very different stories: drifted away, marriage issues, difficulty accepting Church teaching etc. An opportunity is then given for returning participants to share their story and what might have prevented them from returning and to ask questions. Questions will be collected and will be answered in session two, when the parish priest will attend.
Session Two: An evening with Father
The parish priest shares his faith and vocation story. It is important that the story includes elements that allow participants to see the priest first as a human being, and then as a priest set apart. This is especially important if there are participants whose reason for leaving was the sex abuse scandal or other issues with authority of priests. In these cases it might be useful for the priest to share his own reaction to the scandal or how it affected his ministry. What is important however, is that the story is truly and authentically his. After sharing his story, the priest answers questions that came up during the first session and any other questions people might have. This session is especially helpful to allow those who are returning to build a relationship with the parish priest, so that they may feel comfortable to enter into the Sacrament of Reconciliation later.
Session Three: Sacraments of the Church
Depending on how long people have been away from the Church, this might just be an overview of the Sacraments. However, if there are people who have been away from the Church for a long time, things may look very different to them, either with the Vatican II changes of the Mass or even the new translation introduced in 2011. As in all sessions, what is important are peoples’ personal stories. The person chosen to lead this session should be well catechized and able to teach about the Sacraments, but should not just give information (this is what baptism is, this is what confirmation does etc.) but rather should talk about what the Sacraments mean in his/her own life, the graces received and how the Sacraments lead to a closer relationship with Jesus. Accurate information is important, but also the witness of a practicing Catholic who finds strength in the Sacraments. Depending on the people who return, this can be one session or more than one. Sometimes it is helpful to have a session just on the sacrament of Reconciliation. If marriage issues are a major obstacle, a session just on Marriage might be warranted, although annulment issues and issues related to regularizing marriages really should be handled by appointment with the parish priest.
Session Four: Bible and Prayer
The goal of this session is to discuss how to read Scripture in light of the Church and how to use scripture for prayer. Often, people who have left the Catholic faith have joined other Christian denominations and have learned to read scripture using private interpretation or a more fundamentalist/literal view of scripture. It is also helpful to point out the scriptural basis of the Mass, and to give examples of how to use scripture for prayer and private meditation. This would be an excellent opportunity to introduce the practice of lectio divina. In addition, this session would also be an opportunity to share various devotions (rosary, divine mercy, adoration, novenas etc.) If so desired, this session could be split into two sessions, one on scripture and one on prayer.
Session 5: Parish ministries/ How to get involved
One of the reasons often given by people returning to the church is that they are looking for community. This session is to give the participants an idea of what is available to them and also where they might like to get involved. In some cases, the committee may want to consider making this session a ministry fair event for the entire parish. In that case, it would be useful to coordinate the timing of the event so that it can function of a “follow up” event for the returning participants.
Session 6: Tour of the Church/Mass of Thanksgiving
This is an opportunity to make the final session into a celebration for the entire community. Many parishioners, even those who have faithfully attended mass their entire life, may not know all the details about the church building. Many may never have been in the sacristy. This is an opportunity to show people “behind the scenes” and explain things like the Stations of the Cross, the holy water fonts, why we cross ourselves, why we genuflect, what some of the imagery used in the art, statues and windows means, as well as the items used for Mass, vestments, seasonal colors etc. This is then followed by a Mass. The scheduling of this final session should be sure to leave time for participants to have gone to confession it needed. In some cases, it might be opportune to have a reconciliation service instead of a Mass.
4) Plan when to hold the program. Suggestions would be to run programs twice a year: fall/spring, or advent/lent or after Christmas/after Easter. Even if you do not run the program after Christmas or Easter, have posters and materials about the programs available at that time, to appeal to the Christmas/Easter Catholics. Another time to advertise is Ash Wednesday when many non-practicing Catholics will come to “get their ashes.”
5) Even at the times when there is no program running make sure that people realize that there is someone ready to welcome them home and would like to listen to their story. It is good to ask what their story is as everyone has a story and it is a good way to get people to open up.
5) Plan how many sessions to have in each program. You may want to have a Plan A and a backup plan if you find that all the sessions are not pertinent to the people who are returning.
6) Plan for follow-up after the program is over. Is there an adult religious education program or prayer group that the participants can join after they have returned? Perhaps there are participants who would benefit from participating in RCIA (or whose family members might be interested). Often, after participants return, they are on fire for the faith. These may want to become involved in welcoming others back, or sharing their story the next time the program is run.
7) Advertising and PR, and storming heaven:
- Advertise in local papers, post flyers in local establishments.
- Write an article for the local paper (free advertisement!)
- The main way to get the word out is personal invitation. Create brochures that parishioners can share with people they know who are away from the Church. Alternatively, create actual invitations that they can give to people. Ask parishioner who may not feel comfortable to invite people they know for addresses and mail a personal invitation. Also, remind parishioners that often it will take many invitations before the person comes. So if they do not attend the program the first time, invite them again the next time.
- Utilize social media – Facebook, twitter, blog, parish web, etc. Since you are trying to reach people who do not show up in church, you must go where they are. Also enlist parishioners to share the events on their own timelines and feeds.
- Use video and material from sources such as Catholic Come Home http://www.catholicscomehome.org/
- Banners on the outside of the Church: Create a banner to place on the outside of the Church. One thing that was noticed at other parishes where they have created similar programs is that the parish priest(s) were getting requests for meetings from people who had been away from the Church who didn’t necessarily want to go through the program. The sign on the outside of the church building made them confident enough to come back and be reconciled on their own.
- Ask parishioners, especially those who are homebound, to pray for the both the participants who may return and the presenters. Pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. What is needed is a new Pentecost – courage of the disciples to speak about their faith and listening hearts for those who have been away. Also let participants know that there are people praying for them personally.
8) Order Materials to hand out:
Since this program is really based on personal witness and relationship building, materials are not necessarily required, but it is good to give out something that participants can take home. Some suggested materials to hand out to participants
- Book: Rediscovering Catholicism by Matthew Kelly. Can be ordered in bulk from Dynamic Catholic
- The Seekers Catechism by Francis Pennock
- Pamphlets from Our Sunday Visitor or similar vendors on topics such as confession, marriage, annulments, questions that Catholics have, etc.
- Information about your parish – other programs that participants may be interested in such as adult religious education, prayer groups, bible studies, outreach programs etc.