All of us know many people who, either through passive neglect or through an active, intentional decision, no longer practice their Catholic faith. They don’t come to Mass anymore, don’t go to confession anymore, don’t think with the Church anymore; they are folks who no longer are Catholic in any meaningful sense of the term.
As you read these words, you are probably calling to mind such people in your own life. Having children or grandchildren, neighbors or friends who were raised Catholic, but who no longer practice the Faith is truly one of the heaviest crosses carried by people who do know the Lord, and how good He is, and how beautiful it is to live a life in Christ, and that this life is short, and the life to come is eternal.
Some have drifted away because the busyness of life has gotten in the way, and a brief drift away from the sacraments has hardened into a habit of many years. Others may never have received a sound formation in the faith, to begin with, and they misunderstand what the Church teaches about various matters, especially matters of sexuality. (Remember the wise words of St. Gregory the Great: “Anyone who does not love the truth has not yet come to know it.”) Others have been disaffected by the scandals which have plagued the life of the Church in recent years. For others, it’s a combination or some other reason. Whatever the reason, we haven’t seen them at Mass in a long, long time, and we miss them. We worry for them because we love them and care about them.
And this brings up a story that St. Augustine recounts in his autobiography, the Confessions. The young Augustine grew up in North Africa and, by the time he was a young man, he already had a reputation for being extremely intelligent and a very gifted speaker. But faith was not important to him at all; he had not yet authentically discovered Jesus Christ. And he decided to leave Africa and set sail for Italy, where he could embark upon an even brighter future and make even more of a name for himself.
His mother was St. Monica, and she thought that going to Italy would be extremely dangerous for her son both physically and morally. She had been praying so fervently, for many years, that Augustine would be given the gifts of faith and virtue, and that he would come to know and love Jesus Christ.
There is a very moving scene in the Confessions, in which Monica stands at the dock, pleading with God to prevent Augustine from going to Italy. As the boat carrying her son sails off, she remains behind, standing on the dock, weeping.
Once Augustine arrived in Italy, all the dangers Monica anticipated were waiting for him, and more. But even more importantly, when he made his way up to Milan, he met somebody there who was just as intelligent as he, and who demonstrated to him that faith in Christ is fully reasonable and that authentic joy is not only possible through faith and virtue — but that authentic joy is only possible through faith and virtue because Jesus Christ fully reveals to us what it means to be human, and what it means to love. So it was through this saintly Bishop, St. Ambrose, that Augustine became a disciple of Jesus Christ, was baptized, was converted to a life of faith, and virtue, and joy, and became one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church. And it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t left North Africa and if his mother’s prayer at the dock to stop him from going there had been answered right at that time.
When Augustine looked back on all of it as he wrote the Confessions, he thought back to his mother, weeping at the dock, who had asked God to stop him from going to Italy. And he wrote, “O Lord, you did not do what she was at that moment asking so that you could do what she was always asking.”
The point of the story is this: it was the constancy of St. Monica’s prayer for her son Augustine – prayer for 30 years – which obtained the grace of his conversion and Baptism. She could have given up after 10 years, or 20 years, or 29 years, but she didn’t. God heard her prayer and rewarded her constancy. And He answered her prayer in a way and at a time she never could have anticipated. St. Ambrose himself said to her, “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should be lost forever.”
In Milan, at the Duomo, you can see today the excavated ruins of the octagonal baptistery in which St. Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose at the Easter Vigil Mass on April 24, in the year 387. “It is not possible that the son of so many tears should be lost forever.”
Many years ago I happened upon a prayer to St. Monica that was published in a Catholic newspaper. I clipped it out, and I keep it in my breviary even today. I pray regularly for people I know who have fallen away from the active practice of the Faith. It goes like this:
Eternal and merciful Father, I give you thanks for the gift of Your Divine Son, Jesus Christ, who offered His life on the Cross for all mankind. I thank you also for the gift of the Catholic faith in which I share. Help me to grow in faithfulness to You by prayer, by works of charity and penance, and by regular participation in the Sacraments of Penance and the Holy Eucharist.
You gave Saint Monica a spirit of selfless love, manifested in her constant prayer for the conversion of her son, Augustine. Inspired by boundless confidence in Your power to move hearts, and by the success of her prayer, I ask for the grace to imitate her constancy in my prayer for (N.).
In Your mercy and kindness, O Lord, grant that (he/she/they) may be open to the promptings of Your Holy Spirit to return to Your love and mercy, in the communion of Your Church. Grant also that my prayer be ever hopeful, and that my witness be ever joyful. And grant me, O Lord, the grace never to judge the motives of another person, for You alone can read what is in our hearts. I ask this through Christ, our Lord. Amen.
This is a beautiful prayer with which each of us can hold up to the Lord people we know and love who have fallen away from a life of closeness to the Lord, and who maybe even no longer believe in Him. No one is beyond the reach of God’s love and mercy.
As you do that, remember this: Mother Teresa used say, “Joy is the net that catches souls.” St. Francis de Sales famously said, “A spoonful of honey gets more flies than a barrel full of vinegar.”
And let this be between you and God. Oftentimes, directly addressing this matter with people, especially relatives, is counter-productive. Needless to say, guilt trips and negativity just push people away. A life of joyful fidelity to Christ, coupled with fervent prayer, is the very best testimony to the goodness, and truth, and beauty of our faith.
Here’s one last point: sometimes we think, “If this problem went away in my life, or if I were less busy, or if I were more settled – or whatever – then I could be joyful.” But that’s exactly backward, because:
Rest comes not when our schedules lighten up,
but when we place everything squarely in the hands of God.
Peace and joy come not when troubles evaporate,
but when we intentionally place our trust in the Father, as Jesus did.
Fear is dissipated not when the future suddenly becomes clear and all uncertainties go away, but when we return to the truth that everything is always resolved in God’s love and that nothing escapes His watchful providence.
And remember: you and I alone cannot open people’s hearts. Only the Holy Spirit can open people’s hearts. God loves the people for whom we pray, even more than we do. We may not see tangible results today or tomorrow, or even in our lifetimes. But seeing results isn’t up to us. Praying with trust and perseverance, as St. Monica did, is up to us.
The rest is in the hands of God. And there is no better or safer place to be than in the hands of the God who is love.
By Father Joseph Marcello | Pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Trumbull