Catholic Church reaches out to those who left, but some are still hesitant

CHICAGO — In order to return to the pews, Cindy Colman first must grapple with the Roman Catholic Church's failure to forgive, alienating her and her mother from the institution that generations of their family have called home.

"I think I'm still in the process," said Colman, 35, of Naperville, Ill. "I'm at that point where I'm coming back to learn more and understand the whole faith. ... It's true. At my core, I know that."

After fleeing an abusive husband more than 30 years ago, Colman's mother chose to raise her daughter Lutheran. Though she agreed to annul her previous marriage, the Catholic Church insisted on denying her the sacraments when her new husband declined to annul his marriage.

Colman has since agonized about the way her mother has been treated. Still, she yearns to reconcile with the church where she was baptized. She also longs to give her children the foundation she missed.

"The Catholic faith is very structured, and I like that aspect about it," said Colman, who feels more connected to God at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Naperville. "I have a 5-year-old and I have a 13-year-old. ... I want them to know they have somewhere to turn."

The $1 million Catholics Come Home ad campaign rolled out by the church aims to reach people like Colman in the Chicago area — some of whom felt discomfort with church teachings and the priest sex abuse scandal.

The series of ads, which aired on 16 channels in the Chicago area between Christmas and the Super Bowl, featured testimonials from formerly lapsed Catholics, mini-documentaries of the church's historic presence around the world and the message that no matter what mistakes have been made, people can find forgiveness by going back to church.

Some parishes are hosting potluck dinners and classes during the 40 days of Lent, which started Wednesday. Priests report greater numbers in the pews and intense confessions that indicate those disclosing their sins have spent years away from the church.

"Some people are coming forward with significant stuff they need to unburden, maybe because they've been away for a while, burdens they've been carrying for years," said the Rev. Steve Lanza, pastor of St. Julie Billiart Church in Tinley Park, Ill., who has seen an uptick in turnout for both confession and communion. "Some people are coming forward for that sacrament as a result of those commercials."

But others say the commercials fail to heal all the wounds inflicted by the church. They wish the church would proclaim a more modern message instead of stressing nostalgia. They say the ads missed an opportunity to reach out to those disillusioned by the sex abuse scandal. Instead of acknowledging its own mistakes, critics say, the church suggests those who have fallen away should return to make peace with the past.

Sal Boccia, 39, of Alsip, Ill., doesn't want the mistakes of his past to take away from his children's future. Married for less than a year before he divorced and met his current wife, Marissa, he took umbrage when the church refused to marry them until he sought an annulment.

"It just became a big hassle," Sal Boccia said. "It really turned me off — and that's when we started moving away from the church."

But like Colman, the Boccias are contemplating a return for the sake of their three children. Their two oldest — ages 7 and 8 — have begun to ask questions about God and the afterlife.

"To someone who has never been to church before, 'What happens when people die?' is kind of a difficult question," Boccia said.

You start to think sometimes there may be something missing. ... Maybe we should give them a chance to experience the church and let them decide for themselves."

Incorporating the church's rules into the family's routine is both daunting and exciting for Marissa Boccia.

"It is a little intimidating thinking about putting God back in my life," said Boccia, 30. "Not that he's been gone, but we're going to have a space for him now. It's something we have to insert into everyone's lives. ... The words I say mean so much more now that we're older."

Gina Ketelhohn, 31, also foresees a more meaningful and mature approach to the church her second time around. She stopped going to church several years ago when she realized she was only doing it to keep up appearances.

"I wasn't going for the right reasons," said Ketelhohn, a Tribune Technology employee, who has started sampling services at St. Michael Catholic Church in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood. "Until I was going for the right reasons, I didn't think God would appreciate it."

The "right reason" emerged during a recent trip to Israel, which reminded her that she is part of something much larger than herself. She was moved by a commercial by the Catholics Come Home campaign that chronicled the church's influence around the world. Separate from the commercial, she resolved to worship more often and with greater purpose.

Indeed, the Rev. John Noga of St. Daniel the Prophet Church said most of the people who recently returned to his parish originally left the church for "noble reasons." Some strayed off track while taking care of a sick parent or working weekend shifts to make ends meet. He doesn't expect to encounter many returning parishioners who left over the abuse scandal or felt disenfranchised by the church's teachings.

"When someone is angry with the church, those people aren't going to come back because of a commercial," Noga said. "More than likely, it's a situation where they never intended on not going."

However unintentional, some of those absences have lasted for decades. Lanza said one man scolded him one Sunday for reading the wrong Scripture prescribed in his prayer book. Lanza pointed out that the man's missal pre-dated the Second Vatican Council, an indication of how long it had been since the man attended mass.