Western cluster holds event to draw in
inactive Catholics

By Connie Berry
SUN editor

FAIRMOUNT — The U.S. Catholic bishops’ Web site notes there are 68,115,001 Catholics in the U.S. — about 22 percent of the population. How many more would there be if all those who are Catholic but no longer practice their faith came back to the church? Likely millions more.

One of the Syracuse Diocese’s Western Region clusters decided to pull their resources together and host an event that invited inactive or lapsed Catholics back to church. And, according to Holy Family pastor Father Richard Prior, “If only one person came back due to the event, then it was worth it.”

The parishes involved — Holy Family, St. Michael-St. Peter, St. Joseph’s and St. Ann-St. Charles — did something innovative not only by meeting and organizing the event, but also by realizing that together they might accomplish something important. For Deacon Greg Cross of St. Michael-St. Peter’s, that was significant.

“I like that the cluster of parishes worked together because it shows the community that the church has a broader reach. You benefit from the resources of all the parishes and you can do a lot when you pool those resources,” Deacon Cross said.

Even though all the pastors, parochial vicars, religious and deacons were supportive and participated in the Welcome Home event, it was the lay people who really collaborated to make it successful. Susan Cunningham works at Holy Family Church to publicize parish events and she said the communication between the people within the cluster was extraordinary.

“We had very committed, upbeat people,” Cunningham said. “Everybody took jobs that had to be done.”

St. Charles Church had hosted a Welcome Home event a number of years ago under the leadership of then-pastor Father Jim Carey. Luckily, Father Carey still had the minutes of the meetings from the earlier event and gave them to the group to use as a foundation. Jim Murphy, a former trustee at Holy Family, was approached by Father Prior about a year ago about planning Welcome Home. “He asked if I’d look into putting together an event to welcome back Catholics,” Murphy said. “The cluster had been meeting for a couple of years to see if we could do some things collectively. We brought this to the group and they thought it was a great idea.”

The culmination of the work of people from all the parishes happened on Oct. 6 at Holy Family. Welcome Home consisted of a prayer service, music that suited the event provided by Holy Family’s Rob Morey, a presentation by Father Michael Carmola of Christ the King Retreat Center, and the opportunity to privately ask questions about any topic that might be keeping them from going to church. The design of the event was casual on purpose.

“It was a low-key evening,” Murphy explained. “Everyone was dressed casually and we had some readings and a talk by Father Carmola. Priests were available for reconciliation and then we had experts there to answer questions about marriage and family, life issues, divorce — all kinds of issues that a person might have a problem with.”

Approximately 50 to 60 people came and  were welcomed by greeters from all the parishes. The parishes had prepared for months to welcome the inactive Catholics. There were invitation postcards in the pews of all the churches and reminders from the pulpit. Parishioners were asked to approach a friend or family member or co-worker who may have stopped going to church. They were asked not only to invite people, but also to accompany them to the event so that they would be more comfortable.

Murphy said that the reasons people leave the church can range from very simple things that may not seem significant, to the clergy sex abuse scandal, to very personal reasons.

“The question was, ‘How can we welcome them back? How can we welcome them home?’” Murphy said.

An article written by Father Frank DeSiano, CSP, available online through the May 2009 edition of Our Sunday Visitor, offers insights to the topic of lapsed Catholics. It is hard to welcome back inactive Catholics when there is no longer a Catholic identity in the first place. Secularism and materialism have impacted the concept of church identity that previously existed. Today people formulate their ideas about religion through their experiences.

“We have to use the tools that respond to the criterion that most people, de facto, use for religion today (whether we like it or not) — experience. What people see, feel and get involved with constitutes the criterion of faith today,” Father DeSiano wrote in his article.

While younger Catholics have youth rallies and group events geared toward them, Dan Meluni of Holy Family said, “Those of us in the middle age category tend to be quiet about faith. We let the Holy Spirit do the work. With this event, we planted the seed and hopefully it will grow.”

Father Greg LeStrange, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Camillus, said that pastors should also be mindful of the natural opportunities that are presented whenever there is a wedding, a funeral or weekend liturgies.

“I’m a firm believer that we’ve got to be welcoming and open to the faithful across the board, in every walk of life,” Father LeStrange said. “If someone walks out of a wedding or even something sad like a funeral, and they have a positive experience it may be what they need to come back to the church. Even on a typical weekend at St. Joseph’s there are people there who are visiting and we need to take that opportunity to be welcoming and comfortable from the most mundane things like heating, lighting, or air conditioning to the homily.”

Father LeStrange said the days are gone when people joined a faith community because of geographic boundaries.

“People shop around,” he said. “I encourage people to go where they have an experience where the message of the Gospel is proclaimed effectively for them.”

Father LeStrange also cautioned that judging the success of an event like Welcome Home only on numbers is not necessarily the best way to determine its effectiveness. “Was it positive and meaningful to those who were there? Absolutely. We can never do enough of these events,” he said.

The cluster committee for Welcome Home met afterwards to go over the results of their efforts. Cunningham said they were all pleased with the outcome and there are plans to make Welcome Home an annual event for the cluster.

“Our goal was to reach out to those alienated for whatever reason, to encourage the people in our pews to realize that there are people at their workplace, in their families, among their friends who may just need an invitation. Maybe they just don’t know how to make inroads,” Cunningham said. “Besides invitations, once the people were there, we passed out cards they could fill out if they wanted a priest to call them personally so they could talk further. Each pastor made the commitment to return those phone calls.”

The people within the cluster may have tried what might be the most successful way to reach lapsed Catholics today — the personal touch.

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