'Come Home,' Tucson Diocese Says in Invitation to 'Alienated' Catholics

By Stephanie Innes
Arizona Daily Star [Tucson AZ]
Downloaded February 25, 2004

As the scandal over priests abusing children continues to plague the Roman Catholic Church, the Diocese of Tucson is taking a bold move: inviting "alienated" Catholics to come back to the faith.

Whether it's the sexual abuse crisis, memories of "mean nuns" at Catholic school or feelings of alienation because of the church's moral code, Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas is asking disillusioned Catholics to give the church another try. Kicanas decided to make alienated Catholics the focus of Lent this year, asking local parishioners to pray for their fellow Catholics to "come home."

Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter, begins today - Ash Wednesday. Reliable statistics on alienated Catholics are difficult to come by, but the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University recently did a random national poll that showed 30 percent of self-identified Catholics - about 20 million Americans - are not active in their faith.

"People's alienation from the church is something that needs to be listened to, but they need an invitation. Lent is a time of coming back home," Kicanas said. "It's a very important liturgical season - a season that encourages us to ponder our own mortality and how we are living our lives."

Kicanas admits he's taking a risk, especially since a much-anticipated study tallying the number of priests accused of abusing children in the United States will be released Friday. The study is expected to show that over the past 50 years as much as 5 percent of American clergy were accused of molesting minors.

Undaunted by the potentially bad publicity, Kicanas has planned two services for alienated Catholics next month at the Downtown St. Augustine Cathedral. Although he's unsure whether anyone will turn up, he believes it's worth a try.

"Different groups out there are angry for personal reasons, moral reasons, people who lapsed and don't find a priority in participating in the life of the church," Kicanas said. "The Lord invited people one to one and called them by name - the more personal the better. You want to invite them home."

Returning to the fold

But "coming home" takes more than an invitation and a church service. Programs for alienated Catholics in the diocese typically run 10 weeks and often involve a great deal of grief. Not everyone chooses to return when it's over.

"I held a real grudge against the Catholic Church," said Vivian Moore, an energetic retired civil servant in her 80s who left the church for more than 25 years after she married a divorced man in the 1940s. "If you did that back then, boom, you were gone. You were out. It was like you were dead."

Moore is now active at St. Cyril's Catholic Church, 4725 E. Pima St., as a greeter for Sunday services and as a volunteer in the church's "Landings" program, which welcomes disenfranchised Catholics back to church. Moore is also a graduate of the Landings program.

"When you come back, you say, 'Why did I ever leave?' " Moore said.

Coming back to church gave 38-year-old Jeff Landwehr a sense of family. Landwehr, an outgoing Tucsonan who works at a local car dealership, returned to church six years ago. He hadn't been since he was a teenager.

"I was more interested in going out with my friends, chasing girls, you know, I was being a teenaged guy. When I came back, I did it for me," said Landwehr, who is now active at St. Cyril's and like Moore volunteers as both a greeter and with the Landings program.

Telling faith stories

The Rev. Gil Martinez, a Paulist priest, has led Landings programs around the country, including in Los Angeles and in Boston after the sexual abuse scandal erupted. Martinez recently moved to Tucson where he leads Landings at St. Cyril's.

"The Paulists have been doing this for about 35 years," said Martinez, who has been leading groups for 14 years. "It's very hard, but one of the great gifts of Landings is that you walk with each other. It's all part of God's grace."

Each week someone will tell a "faith story." Martinez has heard stories from people who can only remember an era before the Second Vatican Council - a worldwide meeting of the Roman Catholic Church that resulted in reforms. Before Vatican II, for example, the Catholic Church taught that God was a God of judgment who would punish for sins.

"If people don't have a chance to tell their story, they come back to learn new rules and regulations that can be just as oppressive," Martinez said. "Most of the people we see coming back are in their mid-30s to mid-40s. A lot of people leave the church in their 20s, and to a certain degree that's very healthy."

Martinez has listened to stories from Catholics with AIDS, gay Catholics, ex-nuns and former priests.

"It's exciting when we get people like them to tell their stories. They change us," he said.

"Missing in action"

Take Sue Pearson, a 57-year-old Tucsonan who in 1963 swapped her miniskirt for a habit and became a Catholic nun at age 16, joining the Sisters of the Holy Cross in South Bend, Ind. At 23 she walked out of the convent and rejected her church for 25 years.

"I sort of had a problem with authority," she said.

Pearson went on to earn an English degree from the University of Arizona and studied various faiths over the years, including Judaism.

"But I couldn't get it out of my mind that Jesus was the son of God. So that took care of being Jewish," she said.

She finally returned to Catholicism in the mid-'90s after reading a newspaper article about the Alienated Catholics Anonymous program at Our Mother of Sorrows Catholic Church, 1800 S. Kolb Road.

"I carried the newspaper around for a month before I got the courage to call," Pearson said. "If you are baptized Catholic you are always Catholic, people don't always realize that. If they are alienated, they are just missing in action."

Pearson said she was able to return because she did not feel judged. She also did not feel pressured to join the church. Now she listens to other Catholics tell their stories about rejecting their faith. She hears a lot of "mean nun" memories with empathy.

"I just tell them I used to be one," she laughed.

Some people go through Alienated Catholics Anonymous or Landings and end up leaving for another faith. Many feel hurt by church teachings against abortion and homosexuality and cannot reconcile those feelings. Martinez said that Landings participation in Boston dropped following the abuse scandal there. But he still believes in inviting Catholics back to church.

"As painful as this is and will continue to be, faith is not about bishops and priests," Martinez said. "We have to keep going, maybe more now than at any time before."

- Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or


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