December 6, 2023 // Diocese

Ministry Offers Hope, Help to Parents Whose Children Have Left the Faith

“The suffering of seeing children with no normal practice of the faith that we hold dear is a very keen suffering,” Lisa Everett told the crowd of parents gathered on Wednesday, October 25, at St. Therese, Little Flower Catholic Church in South Bend for the most recent presentation given by the RETURN ministry. “And you know from your own spiritual journey, when we are suffering, whatever that suffering is, instead of withdrawing, God actually leans in. And sometimes He leans in precisely through His body, the Church, to feel supported and uplifted, and that you are not alone in this journey.” 

Run by Ablaze Mission in conjunction with the diocesan Marriage and Family Ministry, the RETURN ministry helps to alleviate some of the burdens of parents whose adult children have left the faith by offering tools for bringing their children into a personal relationship with Jesus and a supportive community of peers with whom to journey. 

The ministry, which celebrates its one-year anniversary this December, began after both Sean Allen, the founder of Ablaze Mission, a Catholic young adult apostolate in South Bend, and Everett, the diocesan Director for Marriage and Family Ministry, became aware of the need to support these parents. 

“As I was engaging an older demographic, partly for fundraising, but partly just to understand the broader picture,” Allen said, “it turned out they were very aware there was a problem of young adults leaving the Church, because it was in their families.”

It was a follow-up conversation with his and Everett’s mutual friend who had recommended to both of them Brandon Vogt’s book, “RETURN: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church,” which sparked the ministry. 

“I was asking her questions like, ‘What did they think was needed for young adults? What do they think is the problem?’” Allen said. “It wasn’t a response to a question I asked her; she just said, ‘What we really need is … something for us, for the parents.’ So, we talked about that for a while. I learned there are a lot of feelings of helplessness and hopelessness,” because parents feel there’s nothing they can do but pray and wait, which can lead to feeling hopeless when years pass with seemingly unanswered prayers. 

“There was an element of guilt and shame,” Allen said, “like ‘we’re bad parents because our kids are not faithful adults.’ There was a reluctance to talk to other people about it because they didn’t want to out themselves as bad parents. Since most of their friends’ kids are off somewhere else, they assume that in everyone else’s families, their kids are still practicing, that they’re the only ones whose kids aren’t practicing. And it turns out, as they talk more and more, and they open up, they find out, everybody’s got kids who aren’t practicing.”

So, Allen and Everett teamed up with a group of parents to discern how to meet these needs. 

“Sean and I began meeting with a core team of interested parents in the South Bend area, and our first event was last December, which we called Home for the Holidays, which presented some key ideas from [Vogt’s book] and provided time for discussion, prayer, and fellowship,” Everett said. Even though the inaugural event was held during a busy time of year, more than 50 participants showed up – a sign of the need for this type of ministry. 

Following Home for the Holidays, the ministry held a six-week book study during January and February of 2023 on the “RETURN” book. The study had both a morning and evening session, to provide options for attending. Allen noted that one thing parents learned through the study is that evangelization involves playing the long game. “They realized, wow, this is going to be a longer process than we thought,” he said.

To support parents along this process, the RETURN ministry regularly provides opportunities for communal learning, empowering parents with tools they can immediately use while at the same time creating a space for them to share their successes and struggles with peers. Prayer is also a key element of the ministry, and, in addition to a weekly Rosary prayer group, an early presentation focused on spiritual fasting.

“We have been holding events every two months so far,” Everett said. “In March, we had a presentation on spiritual fasting by Catholic fasting coach Beth Bubik, and in June, we had a presentation by my colleague, Caty Burke (Associate Director for Marriage and Family Ministry) called ‘Shedding Light on the Millennial Mind.’” 

“In August, we sponsored a special Mass on the feast of St. Augustine to pray for the return of adult children or other relatives who no longer practiced their faith,” Everett said. “It was a really powerful experience. People who were there said it was a very anointed event, where they could really feel the Holy Spirit and the mercy and love and compassion of God.”

Vogt’s book encourages parents to evangelize through relationships, highlighting the importance of having open dialogue with children to understand what they think and why, instead of trying to force one’s own belief onto them or telling them what they should or should not be doing. By more fully understanding where another is at, one can then better meet them there and accompany them at each step as they journey closer to the Lord. 

At October’s event, participants had time to pray together and share with their small groups any moments where they could see the Lord at work as they accompanied their children, or any struggles and intentions for which the group could pray. Allen gave the night’s presentation, “The Stages of Returning to the Faith,” based on the concept of thresholds of conversion from Sherry Weddell’s book, “Forming Intentional Disciples,” which each participant received that evening. Allen has used the book to create the Intentional Discipleship Series that Ablaze offers as leadership training for young adults. 

“What we’re going to be talking about … is a road map of that spiritual journey so that you can see where your child might be and what their next step would be to get to where you hope they will get to,” Allen told participants. “We’re going to learn this road map so that you can use this to be a better guide on this journey. Because we can all be a guide on this journey.”

He laid out Weddell’s “5 Thresholds of Conversion”: Initial Trust, Spiritual Curiosity, Spiritual Openness, Spiritual Seeking, and Intentional Discipleship. Each threshold marks a transition from one phase to another, such as from initial distrust to trust for the first threshold, and from being complacent to being curious about Jesus for the second. 

“One thing you’ll notice is that the focus of all these thresholds is ultimately one’s relationship with Jesus,” Allen underscored. 

Participants had time to discuss with their group which threshold they thought their child was at and why, and what they could do to help their child toward the next threshold. 

RETURN’s next presentation, “Home for the Holidays: Steps to Awaken Faith in our Adult Children” was scheduled to take place on Monday, December 4, at St. Pius X in Granger, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. In the meantime, parents can also receive ongoing prayer and community support by participating in a weekly prayer group that meets on Wednesdays from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. in the side chapel at St. Therese, Little Flower. In addition to praying five decades of the Rosary together and a Divine Mercy Chaplet, the group also shares “praise reports” and prayer intentions. 

For both Allen and Everett, this unexpected ministry has been a good extension of their existing ministries. 

Allen notes that “being able to help the parents of adult children who’ve left the faith realize that there are things that they can do to help their children beyond praying and waiting” is one of his favorite parts of the ministry, and as he looks to its future, he says he hopes they will “develop a community where there’s a culture of accompanying their children back to faith and the Church.”

“This first year has been a great learning experience of how prevalent this issue is in families and the great need for Ablaze Mission to be helping them accompany their children back. I have been happily surprised at the progress we’ve been able to make in our first year,” Allen said.

“A significant part of my ministry over the years has involved supporting parents who are suffering in various ways – serious challenges like infertility, a difficult prenatal diagnosis, the loss of a baby before or after birth,” Everett said. “This most recent outreach in conjunction with Ablaze Mission is enabling us to provide support to another group of suffering parents: devout Catholics whose adult children no longer practice the faith that these parents hold dear. It is a privilege to walk alongside these parents and provide spiritual, emotional, and practical support as they strive to walk alongside their adult children and help lead them back to a personal relationship with Jesus through His mystical body, the Church.”

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