In Your Midst


Summer 2002

It is a Monday evening and more than 20 people have gathered in a classroom in Cathedral Place. Some seem ill at ease and do not converse readily while others are bubbling with comments about why they’ve come. Most are not members of the parish, and their ages range from under 35 to well into adulthood.

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Rosanne Michaels of the St. James Religious Education Department welcomes them and stresses that this is an information-only evening. She encourages everyone to ask questions, which will be written down and answered later.

“No question is too far-out” is the general theme. “Just blurt it out.” This deliberately non-intrusive first meeting, at which no registration form is presented and no commitments about future attendance is asked, is the first session of the 12-week Welcome Back program. It is a place for non-practicing Catholics to consider reconnecting with the Church. A typical group will contain those who left the Church in anger, whether over a specific issue or a general unrest, as well as a smattering of people who drifted away from regular attendance. Among recent Welcome Back participants is one person who had stayed away for over 50 years.

Rosanne notes that although older people who left in some disagreement with the Church are a staple in the program, she sees a recent trend toward younger returnees. “We have had some people under 35 lately,” she said. Instead of specific discontent, these participants may have been more characteristic of adolescent distancing from religion.

St. Peter weeps. The Sacrament of Penance is the emotional high point of the Welcome Back program. The bronze figure of St. Peter weeping is outside the Ceremonial Bronze Doors of the Cathedral

Some statistics claim that non-practicing Catholics would constitute a “denomination” second in numbers only to the Church itself. While that figure is difficult to confirm, it is clear that lapsed Catholics constitute an important group still identifying, even in anger, with the Church.

Welcome Back is offered three times a year, and about 75 people annually pass through it as a potential gateway back to active Catholicism. That makes a total of over 500 at St. James alone who have come back to the Church since 1993. Other parishes in the archdiocese offer similar programs.

Most who complete the St. James program do in fact stay in the parish, according to Rosanne. A few affiliate with other parishes, and even though no pressure is put on members to commit to the church, most are ready to become active Catholics.

Attendance increases as the end of the 12-week series draws near. The final session is always a shared Mass and a potluck. It’s rare for anyone to miss this session, and parting with people who have now become friends is dreaded.

The emotional climax for many is confession (the Sacrament of Penance), which is, of course, optional but which most members do participate in. Celebrated on the next-to-last week, reconciliation is a sacrament that has been addressed specifically during the program. Presented as an opportunity to engage in dialogue with, rather than be scolded or lectured by one’s confessor, it is an emotional high point of the Welcome Back program.

The Cathedral is in semi-darkness, lit mainly by candles. Quiet music is provided Matthew McColl, resident guitiarist, and the Cathedral cantors. Several priests are stationed around the Cathedral; participants may request a specific priest or wait for an opening and approach that priest. Tears flow readily throughout the evening. For some they are tears of sadness over ancient hurts revisited, while others find great joy in once again being Catholic and able to receive Communion.

Caroline Henderson has had both the experience of leaving and returning, and now of serving as a member of the team which supports the Welcome Back program. She finds satisfaction in seeing sometimes timid or angry people take cautious steps toward reconciliation. Their journey mirrors her own. She describes her lapse as more of a drifting than an angry departure, fueled by her inability to get answers to some moral theology issues. She has found support both from family, including a brother who is a Jesuit priest, and from the Welcome Back experience in her journey.

“Welcome Back is a safe place to ask anything,” Caroline said. “Even something you think might shock someone. Whatever you express, people will acknowledge you.”

Lee Bedard is a St. James Cathedral parishioner and editor of the Federal Way News.

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