Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

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March 18th, 2011

Lost and Found

The road of return to the Catholic faith



I went to Mass every Sunday with my father throughout my childhood, and even said evening prayers with him until I was a teenager. Then I went to college, and promptly stopped all of it. Sure, when I was home I’d attend regularly but, on my own, my faith — which had never really matured past childhood — was pushed to the side. By the time I arrived at graduate school, I was Catholic in name only.

My early- and mid-20s were a challenge for any glimmer of my remaining faith. In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, where my father — who worked in 2 World Trade Center — was lucky to survive, I felt overwhelmed and fell into a depression. Then, two of my close friends attempted suicide and my world suddenly spun out of control. I distinctly remember passing a Catholic Church in a low moment, taking a few steps toward the door, and then turning away in anguish. How could God let all this happen? I knew that I needed my faith, yet it felt like God had abandoned me.

An old friend who sensed my inner struggles gave me C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. I read it and was instantly touched: How do I become a better Christian? Start acting like one. How do I find God and faith? Just go to Church and be open to it.

I said, “OK, God, here’s the deal: I’m going to do what C.S. Lewis says. I’m going to go to Mass every week for one year and try to act as if I’m a good Catholic. I’ll show up, but if You want me to stay there, You’ve got to do the rest.

So by age 26 when I returned to New York to finish up my graduate work I was at that point in life where you start making deals with God. (We’ve all done it, right?) I said, “OK, God, here’s the deal: I’m going to do what C.S. Lewis says. I’m going to go to Mass every week for one year and try to act as if I’m a good Catholic. I’ll show up, but if You want me to stay there, You’ve got to do the rest. If after a year, I hate it, then that’s it — no more Catholic Church.”

On Christmas Day, 2005 my parents and I were going to meet at St. Paul’s Church in New York City, not our usual Church, but one we visited now and again. I arrived early and waited in the vestibule for them to arrive. A priest came up to me and made conversation. “I haven’t seen you around here before — what’s your name?” We chatted a bit and I told him I was a writer and a sociologist. “Oh, you’ve got to meet the folks here who have just started this great new website, BustedHalo.com — you should write for them,” he said.”

I’d given God a year. It took Him six months. And with the help of the Busted Halo faith community, I began to find my calling within the Church.

There has been a steady decline in church attendance, across geographical, denominational and class boundaries in the past 40 years — and the decline in young adult church attendance has been precipitous. As Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow explains in his book, After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion, there are about 300,000 religious congregations in the U.S.; the loss in membership since 1970 (if you divided it evenly) would amount to 21 young adults from each. And despite what these singles may say about returning to the fold once they are settled down, only about half actually do so.

The question of what to do about this trend is probably the single greatest concern of religious leaders around the country. From Catholic priests to Conservative rabbis to Mormon stake leaders and Muslim imams, the American clergy is searching to understand how these young adult “sheep” became so lost and what will return them to their religious pastures.

A good friend of mine, Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of several books on religion, including God on the Quad, is exploring this topic for a forthcoming book on young adults and faith. Why are young adults moving away from the Church? What can lay people and Church leaders do to help them return? In our video series, The Princess, The Priest & the War for the Perfect Wedding, I’ve talked about how the Sacrament of Marriage and Pre-Cana marriage preparation programs would be an excellent time to welcome young adults back, but does it actually work?

This is a personal topic for me — and for many of you, I’d imagine, as well. Share you stories: Have you decided to return to your religious roots after some time away? What drove you away and what brought you back? Did you attend Mass as a child, and then stop in college? Or perhaps there was a particular incident that precipitated your decision? If you’ve come back to the Church, who or what helped you on your journey — friends, family, a spiritual director?

You can post comments below, or email Naomi directly at naomisriley@gmail.com.

Originally published on March 18, 2011.

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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  • cathi

    The usual story: I was raised Catholic and took it relatively seriously into my 20’s, but fell away for many of the usual reasons. For 15 straight years, I firmly and successfully put aside repeated and niggling impulses to take faith seriously. My return was also kind of a cliché – following a death in the family, I basically capitulated (was metaphorically knocked off my horse, in fact – no gentle nigglings anymore), and here we are. It’s different and better the “reconvert” time around, as I think I am a much more mature and experienced person, and married to a non-Catholic, which has its drawbacks but also its advantages. I’m Catholic because I recognized that this church, warts and all, is a gift I was given, and it’s pointless (for me) to try to find another one – they’re all human institutions and essentially flawed, but also potentially carriers of God’s grace, and that’s good enough for me. It’s a means to an end, and I like to think I can separate the two. Onward ho.

  • Jim

    I was raised Catholic in upstate South Carolina, the buckle of the Bible Belt. I have “left and returned” several times before coming home for good.

    For me, what brought me back for good was reading books on pop psychology. I saw how the sacraments fill deep psychological needs. From a strictly psychological perspective, the Eucharist, with the Catholic belief in the Real Presence, is a perfect act of man uniting with God. I figured that a bunch of first century Jews couldn’t have come up with this on their own and the clergy has been obtuse since Jesus left Peter in charge, so surely God must be behind it.

    Another reason is our experience with fertility awareness (natural family planning). Many Catholics, both liberal dissenters and conservative promoters, present it as a very negative, burdensome, obligation. That’s nothing we wanted in our marriage.

    We later had to “switch” to it for health reasons. When presented from a non-judgmental, positive perspective, the science is amazing and women and couples absolutely rave about it. A popular secular book on the subject has hundreds of 5-star reviews on Amazon. That the Catholic Church was behind something that was so amazing and positive (nearly all the scientists in the field are Catholic) was really cool. That they literally fight the world to promote this as something that is good for women and couples just blew me away.

    Turns out we were using it in a way that was pretty close to what the Church intended on our own and that the negative “promoters” were emphasizing things the Church herself does not. Why some Catholics feel like they have to be so negative and threatening about this subject (and the rest of the faith) is beyond me.

    The Catholic faith is a very positive faith and a very reasonable faith, but it is rarely presented as such. It is a list of arbitrary demands, restrictions, and obligations to some and an embarrassment to others, but the truth of the faith is a very beautiful thing.

    Adrienne is right: The Church needs to challenge people, but they must do so with love. Challenge without love is ignored (it sounds like a “resounding gong or a clashing cymbal”), while love without challenge isn’t really love.

    By the way, I LOVE the Paulists. They used to run the student ministry at Clemson University. (Public school, but has a large evangelical Christian community. Largest FCA “huddle” in the country.) I grew up in the area and later went to school there, so the order very much influenced my life. Kate is completely right—college is a time for questioning and the Paulists were very welcoming and non-judgmental about college students questioning their faith. Every time I would go to St. Andrew’s, I would hear a positive message about the faith and about life. Had I not heard this message, I doubt I would have kept coming back.

  • Tom Brz.

    At Brian and Christine: a good friend loves to say that “coincidence is God’s way of staying anonymous.” Happy Easter to all. AMDG.

  • Tom

    Another ‘cradle Catholic’ who like others is disillusioned with the Catholic Church. I witnessed the destruction of the Base Ecclesial Communities in Brazil and now the arbitrary change in the English liturgy that ignores forty years of tradition. There is a movement that I am experiencing calling persons to continue to grow in faith, be humble, know God and be healed.

  • Adrienne

    What would bring young people back? Love. Not the cheesy, sickly sweet, let-me-cater-to-you kind of love. But the unconditional, meet-you-where-you-are, challenging kind of love. Our churches have to be welcoming to any and all. No one wants to attend regularly in a place where he or she is eyed warily, ignored, or, worst, condemned. Congregants need to feel that the church is more than just the Sunday service, that the church is willing to be part of the community and reach out to those most in need. Parishioners need to hear messages of substance from the pulpit, not rote ideology or condemnation. Challenge us, but do so with love. Young adults face a quickly-changing world. Regardless of our race, class, origin, or sexual orientation, we want stability and a loving community – a foundation the Christian faith and church can offer.

  • Brian Heagney

    Christine, if you went six months going to church, and the thing that made you decide to stay was one coincidence, you may want to rethink why you’re staying there.

    You gave the Universe one whole year to give you one coincidence, and you seem glad that it took only six months. Think about it like this, don’t you experience more than two coincidences every year? Anyway, it’s always good when you can follow your passion. So that’s good.

  • Kate

    I think that the best place for the church to reach out to young adults is on the college campus. It seems that the transition from parental home to college is often the “exit ramp” people take to leave the church. The college years are a time of great growth, questions, and exploration, and the church should take the opportunity to use this life stage to assist young adults in their faith development.
    I am a cradle Catholic and never truly left the faith, and I credit that to my experience going to a Jesuit university. Had I not gone to a college with such a spiritually enriching environment that encouraged me to ask questions and examine my faith, I don’t know that I would still be Catholic today.

  • Mary

    Wow, this post has certainly struck a chord with people. I can definitely relate to the struggles and joys of living out my faith. I am a cradle Catholic who walked away from the church (with the rest of my family) in my last years of high school. I found my way back in in my mid-twenties, due to some personal crises and what I can only describe as a huge void and emptiness in my life. In fact, my whole family found its way back, individually, about the same time. I completely fell in love with my faith and committed myself to all of the teachings. Yet, in recent years I have found myself really struggling, especially with the scandals and staunch political perspectives. Also, Christina, I completely agree that men who are on board with chastity are exceedingly rare. It is so heart wrenching to go through these ups and downs in faith. To fall in love and then feel distant. Now I am working on embracing my commitment, like dark times in a marriage, I am relying on the church’s core beliefs in Christ and my love and desire for him.

  • Dennis

    I’m a little late to this party, but since you asked for stories….

    I was raised Catholic and for a long time it was the core of my identity. I went to mass every Sunday, I was married in a Catholic mass, and started to raise my children in the Church. Searching for a deeper understanding of God, I read the medieval mystics, I wrestled with Thomas Merton, and that eventually led me to read about Zen Buddhism and Taoism, which I initially saw through a Christian lens. But all that reading is bound to have consequences, and for me the consequence was perspective. I learned to step outside of my Catholic self and look at the church from the outside.

    What I came to was a place where I believe in God, but I can no longer buy the stories that for me have revealed themselves to be myth. I saw St. Paul for what he was, a disappointed wannabe apostle who infused Jesus with a theology of his own making. Hearing these stories of a man he wanted to follow, he must have wondered , “Why did Jesus die?”. So he invented a purpose, and he called it original sin. The truth is, Jesus died because (like so many others) he made the Romans angry so they crucified him. Stories of the virgin birth and miracles were added by storytellers in the years when the gospels were transmitted via campfire tales.

    I believe Jesus was real, I think he experienced a great revelation of truth in the desert, and I think he spent several years trying to tell a bunch of fishermen about it, but they didn’t really understand him. St. Paul really didn’t understand him either, but he understood Plato and he passed off a kind of warped Platonism as Christianity. Combine this flesh-hating theology with the power of the Roman Empire and you have the makings of a monster. I visited the Vatican a few years ago, and it was the end of the road for any faith I had left. The Vatican is not a church, it’s a castle. It’s a tribute to material wealth and earthly power.

    I did not want to end up here, but I come by this skepticism honestly. The appalling behavior of the church hierarchy in the face of the pedophile scandals has only cemented my belief that the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity was its fusion with the Roman Empire. My apostasy has made my relationship to the rest of my family difficult, and I wish I could go back and put the genie in the bottle. But I can’t. I read stories of people who “found their way back” to the Church, but I cannot relate to any of them.

    God is great. Jesus is gone. The Church is a corporation.

  • Roy M. Postel

    Like you, I came across this article by accident.

    My brother in Christ, your heart is 100 percent on target. God does not make junk and it is his will that all of us return to him for eternity.
    Jesus became man to provide a path for us. Through the Church, he remains present to guide us along the path. The Catholic Church makes “definitive statements” to bring clarity to your life, not to condemn you. You have a special gift to offer the world via the cross of same-sex attraction.
    Go to Mass, embrace the sacramental life and use the gifts God has given you to build up the Body of Christ, which is the Church. Check out this website, http://www.couragerc.net and be uplifted. There are countless folks, who you have never met, praying for you. You NEED a faith community, don’t try and do this alone.
    God’s every blessing to you.

  • David

    I was a parishoner at St. Austin, a Paulist parish in Austin, Texas. The environment was always very warm and loving, and the people from the community there were diverse and intelligent, not just “scola scriptura” types. What made me fall in love first though was the music. I have to this day, not found a church with an organist who plays and improvises even after the singing has stopped like we’re in a dramatic movie. I’ve never heard a choir anywhere else be able to make it sound like the soul is rising and ripping and coming together, reflecting how it is to be human by their voice.

    I’ve tried other churches since moving to college in Washington, DC. I thought myself a loving person, a good Catholic, but I’ve had so much trouble now finding a church that takes not only the art of the liturgy, but the love and warmth we are called to express seriously. I’ve ran into the problem of church becoming too “new age” and then I’ve run into churches that you’d think someone forgot to tell them Vatican II came along.

    There is a drama to our lives and a drama to the mass. I don’t need everything to be in latin, but I need some soul, I need a soundtrack for my joys and pains. As a hispanic and a former theatre kid, I need CULTURE. Where has it gone in the church? It hurts a lot to have to ask that question.

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