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.