It was the first day of my final college course in Religion. One semester way from graduating at a public university and I had, through God’s grace, been able to maintain my faith. Our professor was one of the most highly respected on campus, a kind of cult figure with amazing gravitas and all the confidence of a great rhetorician. He sat in the desk in the front of the room as we sat with notebooks ready, and pens poised to transfer his knowledge onto paper. ‘I am a recovering Catholic,’ he began, and that statement acted as a thesis for the rest of his course. Frustrated with his childhood faith, anger and brokenness often spilled over into the class.
It was this image of former Catholics that I carried with me from college into full-time catechesis. With nearly 29 million former Catholics in the US[i] and an estimated 519,000 no longer attending Mass in England[ii], there is a tendency to assume that those who have left the faith have done so bitterly, and because of specific doctrinal teachings. However, recent experiences throughout the Church have illustrated that individuals like my professor are the exception, not the norm. What if our approach to welcoming people home began not with a caricature of the angry ‘recovering Catholic’ but with the more accurate and Biblical image of the lost sheep? What if our catechesis addressed the central obstacles to conversion that so many in western society face? The New Evangelization demands that we articulate the timeless truths of the faith with renewed ‘ardor, methods and expression.’[iii] To do so effectively requires knowledge of whom fallen away Catholics are and why they left their faith.