I start the answer to this question by saying that I have never left the Catholic Church. All I can do is to recount what I observe, what I read and what I hear, especially from those who come back to the Catholic Church after having "strayed", their word. I also start this by saying that I am originally from New England where there was and still is a high percentage of Catholics despite the fact that the original colonies were very often theocracies founded by the Pilgrims. It happened just as often that over time the Pilgrims were outnumbered by the Italians, the Portuguese, the Polish and the French, Catholic populations all. The Irish came a little later, but they were mostly Catholic too. All of that just to say that I am not a child of a religious monologue, nor of a religious monoscape. To use a word that I have come to find distasteful, but it fits here, I come from diversity. No, I am not Anglo-Saxon. Yes, I am diverse.
Now a short parable.
I was in the Holy Land for four weeks some months ago. I spent a lot of time in Old Jerusalem as well as in Old Bethlehem. There is in the center of Old Jerusalem a majestic Lutheran church dedicated to the Holy Redeemer. This church is a few steps across the road from the church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is also the only Protestant church in the Old City. While we were there it was very often locked and inaccessible. This did not perturb us, of course, but our curiosity was certainly piqued because as time went by it was the only church in the Old City that we had yet to enter. Two days before our scheduled departure we decided to go to Jerusalem one last time. It so happened that during this last pilgrimage to the Sacred City, the church of the Holy Redeemer was open. We went in. The huge portal closed quietly behind us. In front of us and all around us there was nothing but space. Four grey walls. No pews. An altar and a pulpit. No odor. No noisy, jostling, international herd of tourist-pilgrims. No statues (of course). No pictures (heavens, no). Not even a cross on the front wall. Finally, what really surprised us was the fact that there was not even an open Bible anywhere. There were no people praying, just three or four more tourists such as we. We looked at one another, shrugged and left quietly.
Just as quickly as our Catholicism had been stripped from us as the door closed in on us, we were thrown back into the reality of Mix-Master, multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-colored, noisy, sweaty Jerusalem-style biblical religiosity. Mental pictures of people I know who had left the Catholic church for another religion flooded my imagination. Words of wonder coming from them filled my memory.
"There are no colors to set the environment."
"I missed Jesus on the cross, looking at me, keeping me honest."
"I missed taking Jesus in communion."
"I missed being reminded to beg for forgiveness for the sins I committed in the past week."
"I missed the interesting stories from the Old Testament."
"I missed the candles and the incense."
"I missed special feast days like Ash Wednesday, Pentecost and days like that."
"I missed the Blessed Virgin Mary."
"I missed the other saints too, like St. Rose, St. Therese and my patron saint, Felicity, the martyr."
"I missed the catechism. I never, ever thought I would say that, but I did miss it."
"I missed the Mass at weddings and I missed it especially at funerals."
"I missed the rosary at the viewings of the deceased."
"I missed the unity. Every church was different. There was no moral or doctrinal unity."
"I was surprised to hear so many bad things about Catholics said from the pulpit."
"I met so many disgruntled Catholics that it was hard to be happy."
I left because I was fed up with all the rules and regulations about so many things.
Everything was regulated from what to do to get your baby baptized, to who the godparents could or should be.
Marriage in the church was a nine months preparatory period.
It was just one thing after another.
Then I suddenly had two children and there was nothing for them to aspire to that I could relate to. True, we had our Bible and we did read it and study it, but I did not feel that I had what it takes to bring the fullness of its meaning home to my children. I found myself teaching them the Our Father and the Act of Contrition because I was afraid for them if they could not go to confession. I have to admit that I was disoriented because there was no unified, well focused teaching. Believe it or not, I found myself looking for a priest who would hear my confession. It was then that I brought the entire experience together in my conscience and realized that I had to rethink my situation.
At about this time, John Paul II died. The world stopped for a week. Everyone centered in on Rome. The television went on for long hours without commercial interruptions. It was almost impossible to tell the Catholics from the other players, except the prelates from the East with their strange garb. That did it for me. I knew what I had to do. I talked to my husband about the state of my conscience. Not surprisingly, he agreed. He told me that he too was not comfortable. Some days after the funeral of J.P. II the two of us went to see our pastor and simply told him what had been happening to us over time. We described the clinching moment to him. He looked at us and told us that he understood fully. He assured us that no matter where we went, we would be close friends of God. He confessed to us that he too had been a practicing Catholic. He wished us well and we left quietly, our hearts throbbing with joy.
When we reached home we called the local Catholic church and made an appointment to talk to a priest and present ourselves to the sacrament of Reconciliation. The meeting and the confession that took place are a story for another day. The Sunday after that was one of the most glorious days of our lives.
This is a composite story, woven together from the threads of my ministerial memory. I offer it to all the readers of ParishWorld.net as an exhortation to invite someone to fill in the blanks by coming back home. If you do that and someone does turn it around, I know that you will not cry at my funeral.