Jennifer Barton
December 1, 2019 // Diocese

Searching for the lost sheep

Jennifer Barton

If there is one point to remember, it’s that there is hope. Hope for brothers and sisters, daughters and sons who have fallen away from the Church. Not only is there hope, but parents are not alone — and they certainly are not to blame for their children’s choices. “As parents, it is not your fault. But it is your problem.”

That was the message Father David Huneck reiterated during an adult education presentation at St. Jude Parish, Fort Wayne, Nov. 19. “Return: Help for those whose children have left the Church” was part of the parish’s ongoing “Fanning the Flame of our Faith” series.

Father Huneck saw a need, he said, to address the rapid loss of young people in the Catholic Church and sought to do so in a broader context than a homily.

According to Brandon Vogt, author of “Return: How to draw your child back to the Church,” for every one person who joins the Church, 6.5 leave. Fifty percent of cradle Catholics no longer consider themselves Catholic, and 79% leave the Church before age 23. Many of these fallen-away Catholics gravitate toward Protestant denominations or a sense of “spirituality” rather than a profession of religion, Vogt asserts; rarely do they completely abandon God for atheism or agnosticism. And while it is reassuring for families in this situation to know that they are not alone, it’s disheartening. What can a parent do to bring a lost sheep back into the fold?

Basing his presentation on Vogt’s book, Father Huneck explored some of the common reasons young people turn away from the Church. He included several practical ways to help them find their way back.

“The first and most obvious thing to do is pray,” Father Huneck said. He gave the example of St. Monica, whose prayers for her son Augustine did not go unheard. Indeed, the son for whom she shed tears became one of the Church’s greatest theologians and a Doctor of the Church. Fasting is another powerful and often unused form of prayer. To fast is to detach from worldly things, not only food but also comforts and pleasures, in order to grow closer to God. Fasting, along with any other type of suffering, can be endured conscientiously and as a form of sacrifice on behalf of the hope that those who have left the Church will one day return.

Of greatest importance in the battle to bring souls back to the faith is to “equip ourselves with knowledge of the faith” by reading the Bible and becoming more familiar with the Catechism, Father Huneck said. That way, when questions arise, parents can be more prepared to answer them.

There will still be times when a parent must admit they do not have all the answers, however. The key is to know how to find them. Father Huneck encouraged those present to seek the aid of priests such as himself or other, older and wiser priests, who can help them with the answers to difficult questions. “The question that we need to be able to answer for ourselves is ‘Why am I Catholic?’ Because that’s what people want to know.”

At the heart of the matter is trust and dialogue. “Millennials like to be heard,” Father Huneck noted. Listening to them helps build trust, which is essential to opening genuine dialogue. The knee-jerk reaction of dismissing a child’s objections instead of listening to them is a mistake parents sometimes make. Nagging and being overly critical of young people’s lifestyles and viewpoints are other mistakes that may drive them further from the Church.

Starting the conversation is vital, and Father Huneck pointed out that it may start small; not with deep theological questions but small droplets, including reminders of their Catholic upbringing or simple questions about the young person’s happiness or current beliefs. Even the use of humor, through sharing relatable Catholic memes, can be a small step in the direction parents want to lead their nonpracticing child.

Most of all, parents need to express unconditional love. If there is no love in the house, young people will not feel comfortable enough to open their minds and hearts to their parents’ message. Maintaining a home of hospitality can also go a long way toward inviting the return of a lost loved one.

All of these plant the seeds for growth, he said. Some parents might feel it appropriate to plant literal seeds, too: placing books, CDs, prayer cards or news articles where their child will find them and possibly, eventually, take notice. The parents present also were urged to remember that helping their child find a path back to the Lord and His Church is a process; the seeds might take years to bear fruit.

“One sows, another harvests,” Father Huneck stated. “You may not be the one who wins them over.”

Following the presentation, Father Huneck took time to dialogue with the parents, listening to their specific concerns and offering suggestions that might help others in similar situations.

No matter how devout or well-educated parents are, or what particular parenting style they applied, the likelihood that one of their children has or will fall away is distressingly high, Father Huneck and Vogt concurred. Even families in which a member has been called to a religious vocation can and often do see the negative effects of the world manifesting within their home. Two siblings raised with the same love and opportunities can produce vastly different results. As Father Huneck said, “Love is a choice.”

Parents despair, weep and pray over their children’s departure from the Church and their faith, but Father Huneck offered hope. From his work as chaplain, he said, he has seen firsthand the hope embodied in the younger generations. He urged parents not to try to change their children, but to be a loving support for them.

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