Former Catholics return to the church

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Maybe they had a bad experience with a priest. Maybe they were upset about a church teaching. Maybe they lost their faith or never had it. No matter the reasons, the sad truth is that Catholics leave the church every day.

According to a recent study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, approximately one-third of survey respondents who were raised Catholic no longer describe themselves as such. Nearly 10 percent of all Americans identify themselves as former Catholics and of the Catholics who remain, only 24 percent attend Mass on any given Sunday.

So why do Catholics stop practicing their faith? The reasons vary widely from person to person. Below, five local Catholics share why they left the church and what brought them back.

'Nobody asked me why I quit going to church'

After growing up in a Catholic family in South Dakota, Melanie Rigney stopped going to church two weeks shy of her 16th birthday. She had just lost her first boyfriend to her best friend.

"I was coming home from babysitting one night and decided to stop in the church because I was heartbroken and wanted to talk to God," Rigney said. "The church was all locked up. … I sat in the parking lot and said to God, 'I needed you. Where were you?'"

After that, Rigney stopped going to church and before long, she stopped thinking about religion at all.

"Nobody ever asked why I quit going to church," she said. "I got used to not going."

As the years passed, Rigney married a nonpracticing Lutheran and built a career. Things got hard when her husband was in and out of work, Rigney lost her job, and the relationship was strained because of the financial stress. Eventually the couple split and Rigney was on her own again. After noticing that her friends who prayed were able to cope with life better, she thought about going back to church. Then a therapist suggested she check out St. Charles Borromeo Church in Arlington.

That night, Rigney walked by St. Charles and decided to stop in. This time, the church doors were unlocked. Rigney got a drink of water, sat in the sanctuary and decided to give God a second chance.

She enrolled in Landings, a program for returning Catholics, got her questions answered and met a community of faith-minded friends. After 33 years away, she received the Eucharist for the first time on Christmas 2005.

"I cried all the way down the aisle," she said.

Through the years, Rigney has joined prayer groups, Bible studies and gone on a Cursillo weekend retreat.

"There's something great about knowing when you're going through a bad time that people are praying for you," she said. "The Eucharist and the community - the body of Christ, as flawed as it may be - in the end will come out for you every single time."

'I just thought, this isn't my thing.'

In some respects, Father Stephen J. Schultz, parochial vicar of St. Timothy Church in Chantilly, grew up doing everything right faith-wise. He was an altar server for many years in a family that prayed together and attended 7:30 a.m. Mass every Sunday. Despite all this, when he got to George Mason University in Fairfax in 1990, he stopped going to church.

"I didn't have a difficulty with the Catholic faith, I was just lazy," Father Schultz said. "I think I went to Mass two or three times at GMU, but it was in a lecture hall and I just thought, 'This isn't my thing.'"

His indifference to the faith followed him into adulthood when he began working for a fast-growing Internet company. His career thrived and it wasn't long before he was vice president of the company and a millionaire. Only then did he realize something was missing.

"I was hugely successful in the Internet business, had more money than I ever thought I'd be making and was content, but I realized I wasn't really happy," Father Schultz said. "I knew that there was more."

At his brother's invitation, Father Schultz joined the choir at St. Mark Church in Vienna. He started going to Mass again, participated in an evangelical Bible study and got serious about studying the faith. Though he put it off for months, he finally went to confession. And when he reached his lowest point - after losing all his money in a lawsuit with the people who bought his company - Father Schultz began thinking about the priesthood.

"I remember driving to church for choir practice one evening and praying to God, 'I don't think I can go on,'" Father Schultz said. "God spoke to me in my heart for the first time ever and asked me a question: 'Aren't I enough?' In that moment, God was real to me. Three or four months later, I felt very strongly called to the priesthood."

Father Schultz believes people fall away from the church because they don't realize what they are leaving behind.

"So many people don't know that they can be themselves with God in prayer, so many people don't understand that the church is where we meet the Lord in fullness," he said. "Don't settle for an idea about God, don't settle for your opinion about God. He wants to give you all of Himself and this is the way, through the church, the sacraments and the Scriptures."

'I became furious with God'

Mary Ellen Gilroy, a parishioner of St. Charles, spent more than three decades away from the church for one not-so-simple reason: She was angry at God.
Growing up in an Irish and Italian family with strong ties to the church, Gilroy attended Catholic school at Mother Cabrini High School and Fordham University in New York.

"As I like to say, I was raised to be a true daughter of the church militant," she said.

Those years of Catholic education could not prepare her for the string of tragedies she experienced in her mid-20s.

"I truly believed that if you prayed to God, He granted your specific request," she said. "My father died right before Christmas and three weeks later, an aunt died after battling cancer. I prayed to God to spare these people and God didn't answer my prayers so I became furious with God."

As the years past, Gilroy's career flourished. She joined the foreign service and lived all over the world. Through it all, she never completely lost her faith, but she refused to pray to God. If she had to pray, she would talk to Mother Cabrini instead.

"I figured I was a Mother Cabrini girl, I went to her high school so maybe she'd have some faith in her heart for me," Gilroy said.

Everything changed in 2004 while Gilroy was living in Barbados. Soon after her arrival, a Category 4 hurricane headed straight for the island.

"We knew we were going to get hit very hard," Gilroy said. "We alerted the citizens, nailed down everything that could be nailed down, and I remember sitting down at the front lines, looking up at the amazingly gorgeous Caribbean sky and for the first time in 30 years praying directly to God: 'God, I have done everything I possibly can. Over to you.'"

The storm passed with minimal damage. When her assignment ended and she moved to Arlington, Gilroy decided to recommit to her faith. While attending Mass at St. Charles, she saw a listing for Landings and decided to join.

"That was what really launched me coming back because at first I was really nervous," she said.

Through Landings, Gilroy was encouraged to confess her sins to a priest. She can still remember how good she felt after being forgiven.

"I was high. It was brilliant. I never felt so good in my entire life," she said. "It was during Lent in 2009, so Palm Sunday was the first time I received Communion in 30 years. It really made a difference for me."

'You just give into the sin of the world'

Paul Ehmann, a parishioner of St. Raymond of Peñafort Church in Springfield, fell away from his faith as a teenager. Though he received all the sacraments and attended religious education, he never felt connected to his faith.

"It was kind of my lifestyle. I just fell away from it," Ehmann said. "You just give into the sin of the world. I don't know how to really describe it, but I was just doing what others did."

Ehmann stopped going to church in high school. In the years that followed, he led an active social life that revolved around partying and friends. Only after a breakup did he begin looking for something different.

When Ehmann was 25 years old, a friend invited him to join the Catholic Sports Club, sponsored by the diocesan young adult ministry. There, he met Catholics who were fun, normal and welcoming.

"I met tons of people who were devout Catholics, who would go out to bars on the weekend and not drink seven beers," he said. "We played sports and it was really refreshing to see people my age practicing their faith. That group showed me what I'd never seen before in modern culture."

After meeting other young people who lived their Catholic faith, Ehmann felt free to get more involved. He started studying the faith, attending young adult ministry events and made a new set of friends. Eventually, he signed up for a Catholic dating site,, where he met Christina. Two years later, they married.

Looking back, Ehmann sees a big difference in how he lives today versus four years ago. Now he wants to show others there's more to life than what's depicted on MTV.

"I'm leading a better life," he said. "I feel really good on the inside. I have a craving to learn more and to be a positive example in every instance to make people want to convert."

'It wasn't something I really thought about'

For Ann Leggio, a parishioner of St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax, leaving the church was not a conscious decision. After growing up Catholic and attending a Catholic college, she simply "drifted away" as an adult.

"I left college in 1967 so the church was really something the 'old people' did," she said. "None of my friends went to church so I didn't either."

For more than 30 years, Leggio didn't give her faith much thought. Instead, she decided religion was "something from the past."

"I didn't feel like, 'I wish I could go back,'" she said. "It just wasn't anything I thought about."

Still, from time to time, she would feel drawn to the church. If a crisis was happening, she'd sometimes sit in a church to collect her thoughts.

"It still had some emotional pull for me, even through all those years," Leggio said.

In 2002, Leggio lost her job. That, combined with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, left her feeling lost.

"I felt kind of adrift and lost," she said. "I felt really isolated and scared and didn't know what was going on, or what I was going to do with the rest of my life."

With nothing else to do and lots of spare time, Leggio went to church. Once there, she was surprised by how emotional it made her and how much she remembered from childhood. While looking online for a church with activities she could join, Leggio stumbled across the website for St. Mary of Sorrows, which was starting a Landings program.

After signing up, Leggio found a community of friends and encouragement to return to the sacraments. She stayed involved by taking classes at the parish, becoming a lector and taking a leadership position with the Landings team.
"I came at this from a point of feeling adrift and it gave me a community to belong to," she said. "That was really important to me."

Bahr can be reached on Twitter@KBahrACH.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2013