I work in the Office of New Evangelization for my diocese, and I remember a phone call from an 86-year-old woman named Gladys. She wanted to find out more about the “coming home” programs the diocese was offering for Catholics who had been away from the Church for a while. After a period of active listening and some gentle questioning, it became clear that Gladys herself wanted to return to the Catholic Church, but she was unsure if she would be welcomed.
Gladys explained that when she was 35, she had gone through a painful divorce. Unfortunately, her struggle had become public knowledge and fodder for gossip in her parish community. Instead of receiving kindness and support at one of the most difficult times in her life, she had been ostracized and marginalized. For many years, family and friends referred to her as the “fallen away Catholic” or the “ex-Catholic.” Gladys felt that she was neither. She was, however, so overcome with shame and guilt that she stopped attending Mass for 50 years. As each year passed she found it more difficult to return. On the phone she cried and expressed her shame and guilt for not attending Mass. “I love the Lord so much in my heart, and I feel such a sense of shame for how I have treated him, the person who has loved me most,” she said.
It was immediately clear to me that Gladys did have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and desired to be in communion with him. She read her Bible daily, prayed incessantly, and loved the Lord with her whole heart. It was also clear that the shame she felt was focused on her own failures and not directed to those who had maligned her. She missed the Eucharist sorely and wanted to return home before, as she said, “I take my last breath.”
Gladys’s story has a lot to teach us about how we treat and label others in the Catholic Church. We have a vocabulary quite different from the secular world; often that vocabulary can feel exclusive rather than inclusive. Our words hold the power to shape and transform our Christian communities. The flippant use of terminology can easily create an “us” versus “them” mentality. What we mean and what people hear can be very different things. As ministers we need to be very attentive to the words we use to describe our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The prolific writer and speaker Sherry Weddell often comments that we should “never accept a label in place of a story.” Yet how many of us have used terminology that is lacking in pastoral sensitivity towards those who may have drifted away from the regular practice of the Catholic faith? How can listening to a person’s story—instead of applying labels to him or her—help you be more pastoral in your approach to your ministry?