There’s just something about being a Catholic. The faith sets down deep roots that, for many never go away, even if they leave for many years.

I remember an older priest once remarking about the many Catholics leaving for evangelical Churches: “Ah…don’t worry, they’ll be back.” I was annoyed when I heard him say this, since I thought he was just shirking his duty to evangelize and should be more alarmed at the declining numbers.

But to some extent I have found his words to have  truth. Many do return. And even for those who have yet to return, they still surface from time to time and their Catholic roots stir within them.

There is the well known story of an Evangelical Minister who was preaching a Latino congregation in California. Many of them had already joined his denomination, and his ministry among them was growing. But, it is said, one Sunday, he crossed a line. As he preached he spent time denouncing a number of Catholic practices such as confession. It is said he tore up a picture of a priest and even of the pope. But then, he held up a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe. He wouldn’t….would he? He did. He tore up the picture of our Lady. According to the news report, the people in the congregation rushed the pulpit and the fracas that ensued required the police to be summoned to safely escort the minister out of the Church.

Yes, they may have strayed from the Catholic Church but the roots were still there and you just don’t tear up a picture of our Lady of Guadalupe, you just don’t do that. Our Lady may well get many of them back too. There’s just something about being a Catholic, most never wholly shake it, it’s just in your DNA.

Last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday and like every Ash Wednesday the congregation practically triples in size. The zeal for ashes on the forehead is truly amazing. As Church doors were being unlocked at 6:30am for the 7:00am, Mass people were already standing outside. The crowds for all the masses are truly amazing. The phone rang all day, “When can I get ashes?” And Oh the near panic of some who missed the Mass: “Could not Father come to the door and give me ashes?!” Then comes the little lecture from me, “You know we give Holy Communion every Sunday and Jesus is better than ashes.” The usual response is a blank stare, as though they merely heard thunder when I spoke.

The phone rings again, and Mrs. Jones says, Father my mother has been bed-ridden  for three months. Please come and bring her ashes. I say,  Gee, This is the first I’ve heard about your mother’s condition. Don’t you think I should bring communion and anointing? Oh yeah, that too Father, please come at once, she really needs her ashes….And I want some too, Father. Do you come to Church here? I ask…..No I ain’t been in a while, but it’s Ash Wednesday so I got to get my ashes…..Can you come Father?

All quite remarkable, and duplicated in millions of parishes world-wide last Wednesday. How to explain this?

I was talking to a well known expert on Evangelization and asked what she thought of the phenomenon. She looked at me and then quoted an African Proverb:

Wood, already touched by fire is not hard to light.

She said, remember that Father, they may leave the faith or get lazy in the practice, but once the fire of the faith has touched them, the littlest thing like ashes or palms can light them up. To some extent Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving, baptisms, first communions and so forth all show the same thing: Wood already touched by fire is not hard to light.

This sort of insight explained a lot about Ash Wednesday to me. There’s just something about being a Catholic. It gets into your bones, your DNA, it has roots. And even for those who leave, there’s still those roots. Some try to deny it, but they’ve been touched by fire, touched by Jesus, and he leaves a mark, and lights a fire that never dies away wholly. Yes, even the hostile ones, by their very hostility, show that a mark has been made.

Maybe the old priest was right, many of them will be back. Even some who joined other denominations often circle back as they discover that those denominations also have “rules,” and that the trendy stuff is wearying after a while. Some even make it back on a death bed, after years of renouncing Catholic practice, but in their bones, the fire of Catholicism still glows, and so they say from that death bed, to surprised relatives: “Call the priest!”

Wood, already touched by fire is not hard to light.

And so as we evangelize, as we go forth to call many souls home, it may not be as difficult as we sometimes think. Somehow, deep in their bones, deep in their DNA, is a Catholicism they can never fully shake. And all it sometimes takes is a spark. Can you be that spark?

Wood already touched by fire is not hard to light.

Here’s a song celebrating being a Catholic by Justin Stroh

8 Responses

  1. abby schult says:

    I still wonder why the Real Presence is not more of a pull to come home. It was for me. I sat in other churches singing and shaking hands and after awhile thought – what is missing? Slowly it came to me that Jesus was not truly there. So I went home. Good video. Since I am from St. Louis, the photo of our Archbishop was great to see. Also of Archbishop Chaput, another real champion for our faith today. Where was Cardinal Dolan?

    • Barb Schmidt says:

      Many years ago, I had that same feeling of emptiness in other churches, especially during the one time I was present at ‘communion’. I remember thinking “This isn’t Real. How sad.” The warmth of Jesus present in the Eucharist just wasn’t there. Currently my home parish is meeting in a former dollar store building (we are a new parish, building up the Church people before constructing the Church building), but because the Blessed Sacrament is there, it is warm, it is welcoming, it is beautiful, it IS home.

  2. Linus says:

    Great pictures!

  3. Sherry says:

    Yes, they may return, but their leaving should still be taken seriously. Some leave the Church, join other churches, and become “anti-Catholic”. This probably helps them to rationalize their decision. However, it can be yet another source of division within the family – parents and children, children and their siblings, etc.

    There can be differences in terms of perspective, values, ideals, etc. Some who “accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior” may not look at their misdeeds as sins in need of forgiveness since they know they “have been saved”. Or they may buy into the “prosperity gospel”, etc.

    In any event, better we find a way to help them understand the gift of their faith before they leave.

  4. Jon White says:

    In my atheist days, I would have said that the people who come only for ashes are betraying their superstitious beliefs. Then God abruptly made the reality of the spiritual world known to me through psychic experiences apparently brought on by the Tai Chi exercises I was performing (merely, I thought) as a martial art. Today, I silence my mental conversation about why others might be in church, and let God work on such people in whatever way He sees fit to bring them to Him. Our God is a wondrous and loving God! \o/

  5. Cynthia BC says:

    As a preschooler my daughter understood the imposition of ashes not as a reminder of our humble origins and mortality, but as a proclamation of faith. Dissatisified with her “smudgie” she filched one of my eyebrow pencils the day after Ash Wednesday, and used it to draw a “real” cross on her forehead (as well as on several of her stuffed animals). If memory serves she spent about a week walking around with an eyebrow-pencil-cross-emblazoned forehead.

  6. Katie says:

    “Yes, even the hostile ones, by their very hostility, show that a mark has been made.”

    I’ve heard it said before that hate is not the opposite of love, but indifference. I would agree. My best friend, who was confirmed with me, has revieled to me that she is now an Athiest and has been for quite a few years. I knew that she had fallen far from the church, given the group of friends she chose during college, but I never imagined that she would deny God’s existence. I’ve been praying for her even since she stopped going to mass. We together for about a year, in which I took every opportunity to discuss faith with her, try to be an example and invite her back to mass. Sometimes I feel discouraged and frustrated and overwhelmed with concern for her soul because I love her but I know that because the love of God is written on her heart that she is not too far gone and there is still hope.
    Monsignor, will you join me in praying for my friend to return to Holy Mother Church?

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