How do I speak with fallen away Catholics?

Are we only called to share our faith with the faithful?  Evangelize the evangelized?  No, we are supposed to share the joy of our faith with everyone. Sometimes, that means Catholics who have fallen away from the practice of their faith.  Sometimes it also means talking about our faith with Catholics who are angry and bitter towards the Church.  Their reasons may vary, but how we engage with them may mean the difference between their possible return to the Church or losing them forever.

I remember encountering one such person.

An Unexpected Lunch Conversation

As a favor to a client, I met a visiting business executive for coffee who wanted to relocate to Atlanta and needed help with her job search.  When our food and coffee arrived, I invited her to join me in a blessing of the meal and made the sign of the cross.  I noticed she gave me a funny look when I finished, but ignored it and moved into the discussion.  As I advised her on various ways she could connect with other leaders and job opportunities in our area, I mentioned how “faith friendly” the Southeast is and that discussing faith, family and anything else she wanted when building new relationships was likely easier than where she was moving from.  Receiving my second funny look, I had to respond.

“I noticed you seemed a little unsettled when I said the blessing and mentioned how easy it is to discuss faith and personal things in our area.  I was trying to prepare and encourage you regarding building your network and did not intend to make you uncomfortable.”

Her response was very measured with a tinge of anger as she said, “I am also Catholic, although I haven’t been active in quite a few years.  I have too many issues with the Church and all of its problems and I just can’t overlook them.”

To be honest, I was a little nervous when I asked, “Would you like to discuss what the issues are?”

Reluctantly, she said, “I don’t like some of the decisions the Church has made on marriage, contraception and other social issues.  I still can’t get over the sex abuse scandals.  I know there are a lot of people who agree with me.”

Here was the moment of truth.  Do I defend the Church?  Change the subject?  What?

Saying a quick prayer to the Blessed Mother, I opted to engage with her. ( have summarized my comments). 

A Summary of My Response

“I am really grateful that you shared this with me. I realize you are going through a difficult time with these faith issues, finding a new job and moving to a new city.  This is a lot to handle!  Before I converted to the Catholic Church, I spent over two decades in the spiritual wilderness with no faith at all dating from when I left the Baptist church as a teenager.  One of the many things that drew me to the Church’s teaching was that I knew in my heart that what I was learning was true.  I was blown away as I learned more and more about the Church Christ founded. 

“It also occurred to me as I began to see St. Peter as the first Pope, that he was a sinful man who denied Christ three times and yet he still was chosen to lead the Church.  He was forgiven.  I felt there was surely hope for me and all of us in the example of St. Peter!  I also read the lives of the Saints. The writings of Pope St. John Paul II were transformative for me.  I remember someone sharing a quote with me at that time which connects back to what you have said: ‘The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.

“I know you are angry and frustrated.  I promise you I really do understand.  But, there is so much good in the Church. There are many holy men and women in it who work and pray every day for our salvation.  There are also sinful bad people who have done horrible things.  Yet, we are still called to love and forgive them, as difficult as it is may be. 

“With regards to your disagreement with Catholic teaching on marriage and contraception, don’t you find it somewhat comforting that the Church has not changed its teaching to suit the modern world?  While other religious denominations cave to cultural pressures, the Catholic Church remains strong and consistent in defending the Truth, despite the abhorrent behavior of a tiny percentage of its priests.  I just want to encourage you to focus on Christ and the lessons He teaches us through the Gospel.  Read about the lives of the Saints.  Seek the intercession of the Blessed Mother to help you forgive.  Pray to Christ for help and strength as well as understanding and the capacity for forgiveness.  You and I are flawed sinners.  What if nobody ever forgave us for the mistakes we have committed (and will commit in the future)?”

She was silent for a few minutes before saying something that surprised me:  “I respect what you have said and appreciate you not avoiding the topic.  I am not sure I feel better, but I will think and pray about this and see what happens.  I certainly didn’t expect this conversation during our lunch!”

Some Tips

Nothing radical occurred.  I said nothing earth shattering and she didn’t leave me ready to rush back into the arms of the Church.  What did happen? We had a discussion about something painful for her.  She vented, I listened and offered her my own very positive witness and experience with the Catholic Church in response.  One of the wonderful things about this conversation was her willingness to listen and not get angry and leave.  She agreed to pray and think about what I shared with her.  I think the anger and frustration may have come down a notch and with prayers (hers, mine and yours) she may just return back to the Church.  I followed up with an email offering to discuss this subject anytime and that I would be praying for her.

When we encounter someone angry with the Church:

  • Don’t preach or judge. 
  • Patiently listen. 
  • Offer them a positive alternative to their anger through our own joyful experiences with Christ and His Church. 
  • Pray for them in earnest and let the Holy Spirit go to work on bringing them back into the fold. 

This conversation made me reflect, as perhaps we all should, on how many people are all around us with similar issues who we never identify or engage in a loving dialogue.  Food for thought…

“What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance” (Luke 15: 4-7).

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