So how can we go after our lost sheep, while not losing yet more sheep in the process?
No one can say that Catholics who go to Mass are better people than Catholics who don’t.
In fact, you could argue that if practicing Catholics were better people, we would reflect Jesus so clearly that lapsed Catholics would come flocking back.
But why do people stop practicing? Thankfully we already know – our church leadership produced a report on this back in 2007.
The most popular reason given was that people don’t think that being a committed Catholic requires going to Mass every week.
They also find weekend time is better spent with family than in church.
The second most common reason is that they don’t accept the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. In fact, they don’t accept many Catholic beliefs any longer.
The first reason comes from poor instruction and bad habit. The Sunday obligation has been part of Catholicism forever, and it’s not a secret.
But somehow this hasn’t been passed on to at least two generations of Australian Catholics.
The second reason is personal choice. God gave us free will, which means we can make poor choices as well as good ones.
If people don’t accept the Church’s teachings on sexual morality or anything else, they should always feel free to leave.
It’s much more honest than staying and ‘working for change’ in areas where the Church’s teaching can’t change because it’s God’s teaching.
That’s a waste of precious time that could be spent doing real good somewhere.
In terms of our priests, and whether we should move them around to help practicing Catholics or send them after lost sheep – it’s not a priest’s primary job to go after lost sheep. It’s our job. All of us.
Each one of us has to keep those doors open, have those difficult conversations, be patient, pray all the time, and never despair.
If you know someone who has stopped practicing because they don’t understand their faith, a good priest can be a great help.
But to bring back lost sheep, you need a priest who is unafraid to tell the truth – in love, and in a way that a person can understand.
Jesus never brought anyone back to God by lying to them about who God was, or what He expected of His beloved people.
He never once watered down anything. He told the truth, and let people hear it if they were able to hear it. And not everyone could, and He saw them walk away from Him.
Some argue that if the Church would just water down its teaching, especially on sexual morality, then the lapsed Catholics would come back.
But it’s not true. People have left the Church because they simply don’t believe what it teaches any more.
So rather than deploying priests everywhere, the best thing to do for our lost sheep is to pray for them. Prayer can produce miracles where arguing can’t.