‘Come Home’ Ministries Evolve to Fit the Times

HNP Communications Features

NEW YORK — Almost 30 years after the Province’s “Come Home” program was started by Flavian Walsh, OFM, the ministry that invites alienated Catholics back to the Church is alive at several locations.

St. Francis Church in Triangle, Va., runs the program, along with St. Anthony Shrine in Boston, where the parish is happy to have Flavian now overseeing the ministry he started in the early ‘80s with Donan McGovern, OFM. St. Francis of Assisi Parish in New York City, where Flavian initially developed the ministry, relaunched its Come Home program last February for Lent. 

Flavian has become somewhat synonymous with “Come Home,” so much so that he was recently featured in The Republican, a Springfield, Mass., newspaper. Reporter Tom Shea’s article, “Offering a Way Back for Alienated Catholics,” quotes Flavian: “If you’re outside of the Church and happy, we’re not going to bother you. But it you’d like to come back, we’re here. We’ll listen.”

The listening ministry seems to be working well, according to Flavian, who estimates having talked with approximately 60 people during Lent. Many of the people were those who had left the Church, because of anger with its theology or policies, or were hurt by a priest or religious leader in their past. Several, he said, were troubled by the Church’s sexual abuse scandals. Others, he said, were divorced or remarried, and had misconceptions about their standing with the Church. According to a Gallup Poll, 40 percent of people who are alienated from the Church have a strong desire to return.

“If only one person gets peace of mind or joy of life back, it’s worth the program,” he said. 

Donan said the program works because people are listened to in an accepting and non-judgmental atmosphere. “The program cannot fail,” he said. “All we do is invite them and tell them that we are here if they want to talk about anything. We are here to listen and have a listening attitude.”

St. Anthony Shrine advertised in the newspaper for the “Come Home” program, and Flavian estimates getting 200 responses. Many of the respondents, he said, wanted to talk one-on-one with a priest.

In New York City
St. Francis of Assisi Church on 31st Street relaunched “Come Home” during Lent. The program’s team, led byJerome Massimino, OFM, pastor, included Michael Carnevale, OFM, Patrick Fitzgerald, OFM, Hugh Hines, OFM, and lay members Joseph Nuzzi, pastoral associate; Meredith Augustin, director of music; Edward Trochimczuk, director of volunteers; and Michael Murphy, director of hospitality.

Nuzzi said several friars decided the “Come Home” program was needed because of things they heard in confession. At the same time, staff members expressed concern over seeing people at church not going to receive for Communion.

In February, the parish put ads in several city newspapers, asking if people felt like they didn’t belong to any spiritual home. Approximately 50 people e-mailed the church, according to Nuzzi, and roughly 30 came to the “Come Home” program, which met on three consecutive Sundays or Wednesdays.

The first session was spent listening. Nuzzi said, “Fr. Jerome told them his motto, ‘There is no life situation that anyone faces that we cannot find a Gospel solution for.’”

During the second session, Jerome gave a 10-minute talk, helping to clarify misconceptions about Church teachings on divorce, remarriage and other issues. Catholics, said Nuzzi, have a lot of misconceptions about divorce.

“A lot of people have a child-like spirituality,” said Nuzzi. “They still see the Church as the parent figure. They have not moved to the point where the Church can still be the parent, but they are an adult and not a child.”

“People tend to be stuck,” added Trochimczuk. “We put grease on their wheels so they can move forward and understand that there can be a mature spirituality. That there can be forgiveness.”

The third session discusses “Where to go from Here.”

So far, the program has brought several new members into the church, said Nuzzi, including one person who joined the choir.

In Northern Virginia 
St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle, Va., outside of Washington, D.C., also runs a “Come Home” program once or twice a year.

Anne Tunney, the parish’s director of outreach, said several parishioners trained with Flavian about 15 years ago, and have been running the program since.

“It’s my favorite ministry,” she said. “It is a challenge every time you do it. It is always different because of the issues and backgrounds of the people who come to the program.”

Many of the participants, she said, have marriage, annulment and divorce issues. Others were hurt by religious people in their past and are angry. “We carry so many old hurts and battle scars.”

Like the other “Come Home” programs, Tunney begins with a session on “Church Listening.”

“We tell participants that although we do not have real answers, we want to try to understand what caused the alienation. At the end of the session, a friar will offer an apology by saying, ‘I want to apologize for the ways in your life that the Church has hurt you. Christ’s Church was never put on earth to make life harder for you.’”

Tunney also said a typical Catholic often views his or her faith from the eyes of a 12-year-old.

comehomeAt the Triangle church, where Charles Miller, OFM, is pastor, the “Come Home” program is led by laity. Parishioners Jeanne Mitcho and her husband have been involved for 15 years, and have seen the program change over the years. 

“We are finding that younger people have different issues than older people,” Mitcho said. “Younger people have a different relationship with the Church. Their issue is usually not one of coming home or reconnecting or seeing the Church as the authority.”

Tunney said that the 20- and 30-something people are not angry with the Church, but rather, are not plugged into it. “Life is busy, they are traveling and relocating, and suddenly find themselves with kids who need to have the sacraments, and they cannot answer their questions.”

She added: “We’re starting to see a whole new group of young people coming to the program.”

This is also happening at St. Francis in New York City, where Jerome is working on changing the scope of the “Come Home” ministry. As a visionary and goal-oriented person, Jerome felt fall 2009 would be the launch of a new program that would target young adults, Trochimczuk said. This program would be modeled after the “Come Home” program, focusing on young people who don’t necessarily feel alienated, but who are looking to find their place in the Church.

“We’re looking to tweak the program and reach Catholics who are apathetic to the Church,” Nuzzi said. “These Catholics are harder to reach.”

Younger people, he said, will say they are spiritual but not associated with any one religion. This group will also shop around more for a church. The goal is to evolve the “Come Home” program into more of an evangelization ministry, according to Nuzzi.

This is a phenomenon of which Flavian is well aware. “This younger group is bored with Church,” he said. But all is not hopeless, he said, as many young people do have a healthy faith, especially as seen in the St. Anthony Shrine programs for 20- and 30-year-olds.

— Wendy Healy, a Connecticut-based freelance writer, is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.