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By Erin Hemme Froslie, Published January 18 2003

Finding their religion: Catholic church reaches out to those who have left the flock

Disgusted with God, Patty Knutson of Fargo avoided the Catholic church for 30 years.

Newly divorced, she felt God didn't pay attention when she really needed it. Fueled by stories from her Roman Catholic high school education, she felt God was just waiting for her to make a mistake.

"God was a scary fellow," she says. "I never particularly wanted to go to heaven. I just wanted to avoid hell."

Over three decades, she searched for a kinder, gentler God by attending a number of other churches. None of them filled her spiritual emptiness, either.

Her second husband died.

Her mother became ill.

Last year, Knutson thought she'd give the Catholic church a second chance.

Until she turned back to the church, Knutson was among an estimated 17 million Catholics who no longer practice the faith, according to the Catholic News Service. That's more than 25 percent of those who identify themselves as Catholic.

But parishes across the nation are reaching out to those who were baptized into the faith, but have since distanced themselves from parish life. Many parishes, such as St. Joseph's in Moorhead, offer classes for inactive Catholics.

A year ago, Knutson attended a "coming home" series at St. Joseph's.

Modeled after a book by Carrie Kemp called "Catholics Can Come Home Again," the six-week series helps participants explore things they like and dislike about the church. It also offers information on Catholic Scripture, the history of the church before and after Vatican II and the sacraments.

Seeking answers

Knutson, a grandmother of seven, was skeptical before attending the class. If she received pat answers, such as "in the fullness of time, we'll know" or "it's a mystery," she'd walk.

"Once you lose your faith, it's a lot harder to get it back," Knutson says. "This (the Catholic church) is home for me, but I decided they'd have to prove it before I'd come back."

So she drilled the facilitators, who promised to find the answers to questions they didn't know: How could God let his son die by crucifixion? How could you be expected to love that kind of God? Why are priests always right?

Once she could ask the questions, she felt a burden lift from her shoulders.

"Once I had answers to the questions, I could focus on the people. I could focus on the things I liked," Knutson says. "Some of the answers I still struggle with, but I'm growing."

That's the entire point of the classes, says Tom Cerar, one of the two facilitators for the discussions.

"To be able to share your faith journey and for others to share their faith journey with you, that's what it's about. That's what makes you grow closer to God," he says. "Whether someone returns to the church or not, we want them to keep growing in their relationship with God."

Why they leave

There are a number of reasons Catholics become disconnected from a parish faith community, says Sister Doreen Charest, facilitator of adult faith formation and the evangelization committee at St. Joseph's.

Some have been hurt by the church or are too busy. Others don't establish roots in a community long enough to identify with a particular parish. Still others remove themselves from the church over marriage issues.

Phyllis Reller, who helps lead the coming home classes with Cerar, says the Catholic church has done a disservice in the past by not encouraging the faithful to ask questions.

The class encourages just that.

"It was wonderful for me to realize that we're all on a faith journey," she says. "You never arrive. You realize everyone has questions."

For Knutson, the class opened the door for her to attend Mass daily. Over the past year she's volunteered to visit people in the hospital and nursing home, she's served school luncheons at the adjoining Catholic school and works in the nursery on Sunday mornings.

She used to believe the church was a cold-hearted judge. Now she experiences the warmth of friends, whom she calls her extended family.

She prays her granchildren will some day be baptized in the faith.

Of the six others who were in her class, she sees two at St. Joseph's occasionally. The class doesn't track who returns to the church.

"All I can say is it's the best thing I ever did," Knutson says. "I needed to feel useful and now I'm here."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534

If you go …

The next "coming home" series will begin at 7 p.m. Thursday in The Gathering Place at St. Joseph's Church (the 11th Street entrance between Second and Third avenues). It will continue for six consecutive Thursdays. For more information, call St. Joseph's at (218) 236-5066.