Your child has left the Church. Does this sound familiar? Maybe it was “so long” after confirmation. Perhaps it happened in college. Somewhere priorities changed and choices were made. And it’s his mother’s or father’s or parents’ heart’s desire to get him back to Church.
Brandon Vogt has written a book and put together DVDs and master coaching videos to help parents who find themselves in just this situation. He talks about his new project “Return” (available online at ReturnGameplan.com).
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You write that “The passive wait-and-see game is no longer an option.” Why is it so important that those who were raised Catholic return? Even to the country and culture? Do we all have a vested interest in a parent’s success here?
Vogt: Of course. First, because every person was loved by God and was made for eternal life with him. That means that even a single person who drifts away from God is cause for alarm and vigorous pursuit. Think of the shepherd pursuing the one lost sheep, even though the 99 were gathered safely. Or the woman who searched diligently for a lost coin, even though she had nine more. We’re all missionaries and, therefore, we all have a vested interest in every lost soul.
Second, if we don’t draw young people back, and we continue to lose 50 percent of young Catholics before they hit age 30, then the Church will quickly shrivel. Of course, it will never die, because Christ promised it will last until the end of time, but it will certainly shrink and suffer. Anyone who cares about the future of the Church should care about our alarming attrition.
Lopez: What makes you an expert on returning? And more so getting people to?
Vogt: A few things. First, I’m 29, so I’m right in the heart of the Millennial generation, and I’m also an adult convert to Catholicism. So I know what it means to be young and outside of the Church, and I know what it takes to make the journey inside.
Second, I run StrangeNotions.com, the largest place of dialogue between Catholics and atheists in the history of the Church. Over 2 million people have visited and shared over 100,000 comments about life’s big questions. This has put me deeply in touch with the growing number of Catholics drifting into agnosticism and atheism.
Finally, in my evangelistic work over the last several years, both personally and through Bishop Barron’s “Word on Fire,” I’ve seen what strategies actually work to draw people back. All of that experience I channel into this project.
Lopez: Why is the Mass “the final destination” not the starting point for any game plan for getting your adult child back to Church?
Vogt: The Catechism describes the Mass as both the “source” and the “summit” of the Christian life. It’s the source because everything a Christian does flows from an encounter with Christ, and that’s what the Mass offers in an unparalleled way. But we must not forget that it’s also the summit — the landing or the final destination. Thinking, “If I can just get my child to return to Mass!” is misguided. The Mass was never intended to be “evangelistic” in the sense that it draws in the un-evangelized; it’s for the already-initiated. That’s why in “Return” I lay out several steps to take before inviting your child back, which result in him wanting to go to Mass.
Lopez: “My goal is to show my child Christ.” Can this really be done? Especially if they live far away?
Vogt: Absolutely! There are many ways. The simplest is to unveil Christ through helpful resources. A parent can send their child an evocative film, like the “Catholicism” series, or a book like Matthew Kelly’s “Rediscover Catholicism.” Or they can point their child to helpful videos and articles online. They can also connect their child with a local campus minister, a FOCUS missionary, or young adult group. No matter where your child lives, you can play a role in helping him encounter Christ.
Lopez: Why are prayer and sacrifice such important parts of the game plan? Of our lives?
Vogt: They’re crucial. When Jesus sent his first followers out on mission, they encountered a boy plagued by an evil spirit. They tried all the tactics they knew but nothing worked. Later, the disciples asked Jesus, “Why could we not drive it out?” Jesus answered, “This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:21, NKJV).
Whenever he teaches, Jesus assumes that prayer and fasting are normal parts of the Christian life. For example, in his Sermon on the Mount, he says “When you pray...” and “When you fast...” (Mt 6:6,16, emphasis added). He doesn’t say “If you pray...” or “If you fast...”
Just look at St. Monica. She prayed for her son, St. Augustine, for over 15 years, and that's what ultimately moved his heart.
Lopez: What’s the best advice any of your “masters” gives in the full set?
Vogt: Each drops gem after gem of wisdom, borne from their own experience helping people come back to the Church. One of my favorites, and it goes right along with your “positive intention” approach, is something Jennifer Fulwiler said. Jennifer is a convert to Catholicism after a life of atheism, so we talk specifically about helping atheist children return to the Church.
Jennifer recommended appealing to the association between atheism and intelligence. Our culture general equates “atheism” with science, rationality, the intellect, etc., which insinuates the reverse as well: theism, and specifically Christianity, is simplistic, unthinking, backward, etc.
Jennifer says we must embrace the positive intention (an appeal to the intellect) but sever the association with atheism. We can do this by posing the vast intellectual heritage of Christianity, but also through a tongue-in-cheek quip like, “Oh, come on, you’re too smart to be an atheist!” Obviously, you don’t want to say this dismissively. But in the right tone and at the right time, it both affirms the child’s intelligence and encourages him to consider alternatives to atheism.
Lopez: Is Pope Francis helping the prospect of young people returning?
Vogt: Undoubtedly. Just look at the so-called “Francis effect,” both statistically and anecdotally. Through his words and actions, many people who drifted from the Church have once again become curious and open, giving the Church a second thought. Even if they still have hang-ups with her moral teachings, they’ve become re-enchanted with the Church’s spiritual power, which Pope Francis puts on display everywhere he goes.
Lopez: Are there principles in the “Return” project series that will work for friends, siblings, neighbors, coworkers?
Vogt: Sure, but I intentionally designed “Return” to help parents and grandparents draw their children back. There are lots of books and resources on helping people return to the Church in general, whether those people be friends, coworkers, family, etc. The problem is that such a wide target audience means the advice must be broad and general.
Yet as any parent knows, the parent-child relationship is unique. There are certain strategies a parent shouldn’t or can’t implement with their children, simply because of their relationship. On the other hand, there are special advantages.
For example, children have likely seen their parents fall short, screw up and generally fail to live out their ideals. That’s normal — all of us parents are hypocrites. But because of that, trying to draw your child to the faith “by your own lifestyle” may not be the best approach, since they just know your failings to well.
However, as a parent, you are better positioned to have deep, heartfelt conversations with your child since you share a unique bond of trust and love. Even if the relationship is damaged, you can heal it and have conversations that would just be too intimate or awkward for co-workers to have.
Lopez: What makes “Return” most practical?
Vogt: Although I spend a little time exploring the statistics surrounding why young people leave, and where they go, most of“Return” is packed with specific, concrete advice. The whole game plan I lay out is practical and proven.
To be clear, it’s not formulaic. This isn’t a “convert-your-child-quick” scheme where you plug in your child, say the magic words, and voila! Your child is back at Mass.
But what “Return” offers are specific tips and strategies that take a parent from the very beginning stage, where your child hates the Church or is utterly ambivalent, all the way to fully reconciling him with the Church and falling in love with Jesus Christ.
Lopez: If I may: Why did you find the “positive intention” approach that’s presented in “How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice” (which I co-authored with Austen Ivereigh, from Our Sunday Visitor) important enough to include in your own book?
Vogt: Because it works! I’ve used it so many times in personal conversations. If you want to shed more light than heat, identify something positive in the other person’s position before sharing your own.
Even when you disagree, there’s usually some positive value they appeal to, such as freedom, equality, peace, dignity, compassion, etc. Find that value, affirm it, and you’ve warmed their heart and diffused the tension.
That’s why I encourage parents to ask fallen-away children lots of questions. You need to first find out why your child has drifted from the Church, and then affirm the value behind those reasons, where possible.
For example, if your child quits going to Mass because he considers it “boring and irrelevant,” affirm his desire not to be a hypocrite, for not going just to appease mom and dad. If he really sees Mass as meaningless and adding no value to his life, then he’s right to ignore it!
But then — and here’s the important part — show him why that premise isn’t true. Show him that the Mass only seems boring because he doesn’t yet understand what’s going on or appreciate its value. When you begin by affirming his intention, you’ll make it much more likely he’ll be open to your response.
Lopez: Why is the Holy Spirit absolutely necessary and “the greatest ally” in the “Return” mission work?
Vogt: The Holy Spirit, if asked, will be a parent’s confidant and guide, and he’ll carry most of the burden of drawing their child back. Working in the parent, he will provide the right words to say at the right moments, and will soften their heart. Working in the child, he will slowly prepare the way of his conversion, raking away rocky barriers and planting seeds of grace which he’ll later water and grow.
Without the Holy Spirit, our tips and strategies have a very limited chance of success. Sure, you might be able to manipulate your child through a well-placed question or phrase, but unless the Holy Spirit has already been stirring in his heart, your child will likely be resistant.
Lopez: What are you most grateful for when it comes to your faith?
Vogt: The mercy of God.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the new revised and updated edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice (available from Our Sunday Visitor and Amazon.com).