I was in Seattle for the Easter Triduum, and on Holy Thursday I ended up at St. James, the diocesan Cathedral, for Mass. The pomp-and-circumstance of their liturgy is not my style, so I found myself very susceptible to distraction—particularly once I spotted the little yellow card in the pew shelf in front of me. In big bold letters it read, “Welcome back to non-practicing Catholics!”
I picked up the card immediately. It advertised a bi-annual, 12-week series for “non-practicing Catholics” who have “been away” from the church and are considering a return. The unique advertisement was fuel for thought for the remainder of the liturgy.
My intrigue was deeply ambivalent. On one hand, it was delightful to see a church consciously reaching out to the hoards of “non-practicing Catholics” in the community who have been hurt, bored, confused or pissed off by Catholicism. I have been disappointed by Catholics who simply respond to this population with blame: “Well, if they took the time to understand…” or “If they weren’t so apathetic…” or “If they weren’t so selfish…then those who have left would realize they are missing out on the ‘One True Church’ and come back!” Having very intentionally ceased regular participation in Catholicism for four years—not out of misunderstanding or apathy or selfishness, but out of genuine disappointment and frustration—I am quick to correct Catholics who think “leaving” the Church is merely the easy way out. My time as a non-practicing Catholic was full of difficult grappling with my tradition, and I would have loved a program like the one advertised on that little yellow card. It would have been nice to feel like my absence mattered.
On the other hand, there is something about the basic premise of this ministry that rubs me the wrong way. What does it mean to be a “non-practicing Catholic”?
The pew card, with its friendly “Welcome back,” seemed to imply that “non-practicing” refers to individuals who don’t attend Mass. I think it is more complicated than that. I have Protestant friends who loyally attended weekly Mass as students at Catholic universities. If Catholic practice is measured by Mass participation, these Protestants could be considered loyal Catholics. We all know that is not the case; my friends were often pointedly instructed not to receive the Eucharist because they are outside the communion of the Catholic Church.
Perhaps the fact that these friends can’t physically receive the Eucharist and other sacraments is what makes them “participants in Catholicism” rather than “practicing Catholics.” Yet we all know plenty of people who have received the Sacraments yet don’t seem to embody a living Catholic spirituality. Are they “practicing Catholics” even though they seemingly lack any concerted attempt at a Christian lifestyle and active personal faith?
Meanwhile, some of my most faithful, dedicated Catholic friends currently avoid Mass. Some joke that Mass is currently getting in the way of their relationship with God. For them, it brings out all that is painful for them about being Catholic: the institution’s treatment of certain moral issues, the clergy abuse scandal, the thick masculine language of the typical liturgy and church document, or how one’s gender gets in the way of her vocational stirrings…These things are hard because these individuals—these “non-practicing Catholics”—find themselves so deeply connected to the tradition at the very root of their pains. If they weren’t “Catholic,” they probably wouldn’t ache so much. I don’t think Mass delineates their living Catholicity.
What makes us “practicing” Catholics? What does it mean to “leave,” or to “return to” the tradition? And who gets to decide all this anyway? I genuinely like the idea of this “Welcome Back” ministry, so maybe I’ll bring my questions to them.
Jessica Coblentz is a recent graduate of Santa Clara University and an incoming graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. She currently resides in Los Angeles where she works in Catholic young adult and campus ministries. Follow her writing on the Web at www.jessicacoblentz.blogspot.com