Returning to the Church

Issue: What is the process for returning to the Catholic Church? What might a person returning to the Church expect?

Response: Former Catholics can always return to the Church—they need only seek a priest. The priest can provide any needed guidance or instruction. A full return to the Church includes a celebration of the sacraments.

A person coming back into the Church can expect the fullness of the means of personal sanctification provided by Jesus Christ through His Church. He or she can expect a full participation in the mission of Christ and His Church. He or she should expect to experience the characteristics of the Church—one, holy, catholic, and apostolic—really but imperfectly manifested in the life of faith, the celebration of the liturgy, and pastoral governance.

Discussion: When a person is baptized in the Catholic Church, he or she becomes a member of the Family of God. As with any family, for any number of causes, there can be alienation between family members. One might be driven away by abuse, might be drawn away by the prospect of good fortune, or might have harmed another member and felt it best to leave. In general, separation from the family is not considered a good thing in itself, whereas coming back to the family is. In all cases, by virtue of the blood that runs through his or her veins, the person never ceases to be a member of the family, even in the face of vows or curses.

A baptized person is always incorporated to some degree into the Mystical Body of Christ. This is because Baptism creates a new creature “in Jesus Christ”:

Baptism makes us members of the Body of Christ: “Therefore . . . we are members one of another.” Baptism incorporates us into the Church. From the baptismal fonts is born the one People of God of the New Covenant, which transcends all the natural or human limits of nations, cultures, races, and sexes: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” (Catechism, no. 1267)

This incorporation into the Church is permanent and creates bonds that cannot be broken:

Incorporated into Christ by Baptism, the person baptized is configured to Christ. Baptism seals the Christian with the indelible spiritual mark ( character) of his belonging to Christ./ No sin can erase this mark, even if sin prevents Baptism from bearing the fruits of salvation. Given once for all, Baptism cannot be repeated. (Catechism, no. 1272)

This indelible or permanent character creates equally permanent bonds of unity that cannot be broken. Furthermore, part of being a new creature is being an adopted son of God and a co-heir with Christ (cf. Catechism, no. 1265. “Son” and “heir” refer to our lawful status as inheritors or first-born sons of the kingdom). While we can reject our inheritance through sin and separation, we cannot erase the permanent character of belonging to Christ.

This reality was expressed in a 2006 interpretation of what constitutes a “formal act of defection” from the Church (formerly “abandoning the faith”). After itemizing and explaining what needed to be present for a person to formally defect from the Church, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts emphasized the lasting nature of the bonds created by Baptism:

“The sacramental bond of belonging to the Body of Christ that is the Church, conferred by the baptismal character, is an ontological and permanent bond which is not lost by reason of any act or fact of defection.”[1]

Just as the prodigal son left his family and squandered his inheritance, so the baptized can separate themselves from God and His Church and, by sinning, reject their inheritance. Yet both are always sons and both are always able to return.

Bonds that Break

While the bond of belonging to the Body of Christ is permanent, there are other bonds that can be weakened or even broken as a consequence of choice. The bonds of charity with God and members of the Body of Christ are broken by mortal sin. Bonds of fraternal communion, through which spiritual goods are exchanged among the members of the Body of Christ, are both visible and invisible:

“Fully incorporated into the society of the Church are those who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept all the means of salvation given to the Church together with her entire organization, and who—by the bonds constituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and communion—are joined in the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but ‘in body’ not ‘in heart.’” (Catechism, no. 837)

A person returns to the Church by restoring and then strengthening bonds of charity and fraternal communion. This is done primarily through the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist.

Reconciling with the Church

The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church succinctly lists the effects of the Sacrament of Reconciliation:

The effects of the sacrament of Penance are: reconciliation with God and therefore the forgiveness of sins; reconciliation with the Church; recovery, if it has been lost, of the state of grace; remission of the eternal punishment merited by mortal sins, and remission, at least in part, of the temporal punishment which is the consequence of sin; peace, serenity of conscience and spiritual consolation; and an increase of spiritual strength for the struggle of Christian living. (no. 310)

While a particular effect of the Sacrament is reconciliation with the Church, in general the graces of the Sacrament are sought by Christians responding to the call of ongoing conversion. The Church encourages regular Confession to “[help] us form our conscience, fight against evil tendencies, let ourselves be healed by Christ and progress in the life of the Spirit” (Catechism, no. 1458). In battling particular sins, especially those that break the bonds of charity, confession and absolution provide a new beginning.

Even the person who has been victimized, left the Church, and is considering returning would do well to avail himself of these sacramental graces. The practice of Confession does not presume mortal sin or even fault on the person returning to the Church.

The believer who goes to Confession with the right dispositions does not have an experience of the justice that condemns, but of the love that pardons. And it is an experience through which, in the warm light of Christ’s love, he learns to know better his own weaknesses, the deficiencies of his own temperament, and the complex implications of his own shortcomings. Nor need one fear, on the other hand, that this would inevitably lead to frustrations or traumas, since in the very act in which the penitent discovers the dimensions of his own culpability he is faced also with a renewed experience of the patient and strong mercy of his Lord.[2]

While those returning to the Church typically do so through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, it should be mentioned that anyone conscious of grave sin must receive absolution before approaching Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. As St. Paul admonishes us, those who receive Our Lord’s sacred Body and Blood unworthily eat and drink judgment upon themselves (1 Cor. 11:27–32; cf. Catechism, no. 1385).

The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Life

After the bonds of communion have been restored through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the returning Catholic participates in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the source and summit of Christian life and the sign and cause of unity in the Church. Returning to the Church for many means returning to the Eucharist:

Communion with the Body and Blood of Christ increases the communicant’s union with the Lord, forgives his venial sins, and preserves him from grave sins. Since receiving this sacrament strengthens the bonds of charity between the communicant and Christ, it also reinforces the unity of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ (Catechism, no. 1416).

Irregular Marriages and Holy Communion

While the Church welcomes all to the fullest possible incorporation, those who have entered into irregular marriages have created for themselves an impediment to receiving Communion. The bond of marriage is made through a legitimate exchange of consent. The Church, in protecting the sanctity of marriage, does not recognize as validly married those people who do not legitimately exchange consent.

Sometimes an irregular marriage can simply be regularized through a “convalidation” ceremony in which the couple exchanges vows in the Church.

Sometimes an irregular marriage involves a divorce and remarriage. The Church, protecting the sanctity of marriage, always presumes that the first marriage is valid unless proven otherwise. Divorce, then, amounts to a separation of spouses who remain married.[3] Persons returning to the Church who are facing this reality have a number of options. They can petition a diocesan marriage tribunal to examine the previous marriage in the hope of a declaration of nullity (i.e., there was no valid exchange of consent). In the meantime, accepting the presumption that they are living together outside of the bonds of marriage, they can live together, but in total continence. They would then be living in accordance with God’s law and be free to receive Communion. Should they choose, for any reason, to continue in sexual intimacy they would not be free to receive Communion. A priest receiving a person back into the Church will be able to provide pastoral guidance respecting the needs and rights of both spouses.

RCIA and Instruction

There are three sacraments of initiation which establish the foundations of Christian life: Baptism, Confirmation, and the Eucharist. Generally, upon their return to the Church, Catholics who have not received all of the sacraments of initiation enter into a parish program called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). RCIA is a combination of ritual and instruction which gradually initiates a person into the mysteries of the Church. In fact, pastors will often recommend at least an informal participation in RCIA for anyone returning to the Church, even those who have already received all three sacraments. It should be noted here that a person might return to the Church by way of individual instruction and guidance from a religious priest—a member of a religious order—and not through a parish RCIA program. Also, a parish priest might dispense from instruction those who are already manifestly prepared to enter the Church.

Stumbling Blocks

For some people, entering the Church is simply a matter of returning home. They are people of faith who stopped practicing but whose path eventually brings them back to the Church. For others, returning to the Church involves facing problems that led to their leaving the Church. They perceive some greater good in returning to the Church, but at the same time these people could encounter difficulty in restoring and strengthening bonds of communion—faith, sacraments, and pastoral governance— that permit the faithful to receive the life of grace within the Church (cf. Catechism, no. 815). In this regard, their return to the Church is a beginning.

A priest can provide some instruction and guidance oriented toward strengthening these bonds, but in an imperfect world much depends on the person returning to the Church. A person should frequently examine why he left the Church and his reasons for returning. As the Church is the sacrament of salvation, it is only in error or weakness that a person cuts himself off from her graces, regardless of culpability. Living the life of God’s grace, with the help of the sacraments, prayer, and study, a person can be strengthened and perfected to face problems that might arise.

The elation of returning to full communion with the Church, the sense of wonder in pondering her mysteries, and the joy of worshipping God in the liturgy might not be shared by all members of the local faith community. Nevertheless, the Church was established by Jesus Christ as both visible and invisible. Those returning must not be put off by the necessarily human part of the Church. Here are a few possible stumbling blocks:

Liturgy: The faithful have a right to a licitly celebrated liturgy, and a poorly celebrated liturgy can be a stumbling block for people. At the same time, the liturgy is the sacred action through which “Christ continues the work of our redemption in, with and through his Church.”[4] In the liturgy, Christ signifies and makes present His own Paschal Mystery (cf. Catechism, no. 1085). The presence of Christ and His Paschal Mystery cannot be overshadowed by errors and abuses in the celebration of the liturgy.

Governance: Church leaders are human beings who experience the same frailties and weaknesses that we all do. The conduct or teaching of these “human vessels” may not always be worthy of a disciple of Jesus Christ, just as the conduct of all members of the Body of Christ is not always worthy. Catholics should manifest a filial or “childlike” piety in all their dealings with bishops and priests by virtue of their office as “spiritual fathers.”

Teaching: The infallible teachings of the Church can be misunderstood, unknown, or utterly rejected by teachers. The best defense against error is truth—learned through ongoing study from reliable sources and presented in dialogue charitably, respectfully, and privately to build Catholic unity with the individuals involved.

Community: Many people who consider themselves part of a faith community are present largely for cultural and social reasons. They may not exhibit “the response of faith as consent and commitment” to the saving word of God (see Catechism, no. 1102). The person returning to the Church must look to smaller segments of the faith community for Christian fellowship while participating in the growth of the whole community. Participation in small prayer groups, Scripture studies and Catechism studies can be helpful. Putting gifts at the service of the parish can have an evangelical impact. There is no official designation for people returning to the Church.

There is no section of the Code of Canon Law that provides rules specifically for such a group of people. The fact is that all of the baptized are in varying degrees of communion with the Church. Those who wish to return to the Church reestablish and strengthen bonds of communion by joining the faithful in daily conversion and renewal.

For Further Reading

  • Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God, edited by Scott Hahn and Leon Suprenant (Emmaus Road, 1998).
  • Mitch Finley, It’s Not the Same Without You: Coming Home to the Catholic Church (Image, 2003).
  • Lorene Hanley Duquin, Could You Ever Come Back to the Catholic Church? (Alba House, 1994).
  • Patrick Madrid, Surprised by Truth 1, 2, and 3.
  • Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (1964).
  • Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter On the Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church, Ecclesia De Eucharistia (2003).
  • Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America (1999).

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[1] Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, Actus Formalis Defectionis ab Ecclesia Catholica (March 13, 2006) Prot. N. 10279/2006.

[2] John Paul II, Address to the Participants of the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments (April 17, 1986).

[3] Those who are divorced do not, solely by that fact, lack unity with the Body of Christ. They remain free to receive the sacraments and participate fully in the life of the Church.

[4] Compendium, no. 219; cf. Catechism, nos. 1071–75.

Related Faith Facts

  • Going God’s Way— The Church’s Teaching on Moral Conscience
  • All in the Family—The Communion of Saints
  • Following Our Bishops ??The Annulment Process
  • Divorce and Remarriage: The Church’s Perspective
  • Rock Solid: The Salvation History of the Catholic Church
  • That They May All Be One: The Difference The Church Makes
  • Human Suffering: Why Does God Permit It?
  • Proclaiming the Good News to the World: The Church’s Evangelizing Mission
  • Here Am I Lord: Vocations in Christ
  • One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic: The Marks of Christ’s Church
  • Hope: A Pilgrim’s Virtue

© 2007 Catholics United for the Faith

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