As I wrote this post, the Catholic University of America was preparing to celebrate Homecoming, when over 1,500 alumni and their guests returned to their alma mater. The weekend itself is a joyful occasion, a chance for classmates to catch up with one another and see what has occurred in the time since graduation. While life often takes alumni down different paths, Homecoming offers everyone the opportunity to reconnect with the place that, and the people who, helped launch the next chapter, whether it was one of service, religious vocation, family life, and/or employment. Homecoming itself reflects the willingness of the University to throw open its doors to welcome back all, no matter how long they’ve been gone or why they stayed away.
It’s a tried-and-true model and it’s along these lines that the Church opens her doors to those who might have fallen away, whether because of a poor experience or because of a lack of interest or engagement. Initiatives such as “Catholics Come Home,” or the Archdiocese of Washington’s “The Light is On For You,” and similar diocesan programs nationwide, seek to welcome back Catholics who have been absent from the life of the Church. The projected tone and nature of these programs is of authentic openness and welcome — free of any judgement or bitterness. The goal is to encourage those who have been away to re-encounter the perfect love and understanding of our Lord as manifested and offered by His Church.
The doors of the Catholic Church are open year-round for those seeking something better than what the world offers but there are moments in the liturgical calendar which emphasize and focus on refreshing one’s spiritual life such as Advent and Lent. Similarly, the invitation to participate in or observe the sacraments being celebrated can be an emotional catalyst for one to come back or renew his or her baptismal promise. Emotions, such as the awe of witnessing a reverent First Communion or religious profession, the joy of a marriage, or the hopeful rawness of a funeral, can move one to respond to a previously suppressed or unrecognized call to reconciliation with the Church. These “moments of return” can awaken a longing for an interior peace that only the Lord can provide. As Pope Francis encourages:
Maybe someone … is thinking: my sin is so great, I am as far from God as the younger son in the parable [of the Prodigal Son], my unbelief is like that of Thomas; I don’t have the courage to go back, to believe that God can welcome me and that he is waiting for me, of all people. But God is indeed waiting for you; he asks of you only the courage to go to him… I have always pleaded, “Don’t be afraid; go to him; he is waiting for you; he will take care of everything.” We hear many offers from the world around us, but let us take up God’s offer instead: his is a caress of love.
Archbishop Sheen, the great evangelizer who brought millions around the world into an encounter with the Lord via his weekly TV program, Life is Worth Living, encourages us to seek out those who have everything to gain by entering into Christ’s body on earth but are currently missing out:
What was the first word of our Lord’s public life? That’s the key to preaching. It was ‘come.’ Come. Come to Me. Be enflamed with my Truth. Be on fire with my Love. And what was the last word of our Lord’s public life? It was ‘Go!’ First we come, then we go! (Sheen, “The Art of Preaching,” 1972)
Just as the gift of faith was freely shared with each of us, how enthusiastically, then, we must go and share the Good News with everyone on the highways and byways — we cannot keep it to ourselves! As we begin to prepare for the celebration of our Lord’s birth during the Advent season in a few weeks, why not invite someone to join you for the beginning of a new liturgical year — and the beginning (or rediscovery) of something deep within that person that can only be the desire to know our Savior. By doing so, by planting the seed of the Word in people’s minds and hearts, by boldly meeting people where they are in life rather than waiting for them to come to us, each of us who are sharers in the Church’s ministry can cause much rejoicing in heaven (Luke 15:1-7). Let us embrace those who have been away for a long time, crying out, “Welcome home!”