‘WELCOME home’ – the words were a godsend for the woman sitting ‘petrified’ in front of a priest for the first time in more than 20 years.
Amanda O’Reilly, a young mother yearning to return to the Church after leaving during her primary school days, saw reconciliation as one of the prerequisites before she could receive Communion.
‘When you’ve been away so long it is such a big thing to get over,’ Amanda said.
‘You don’t want to walk in and receive the Eucharist without going to reconciliation.
‘But it’s a daunting prospect to sit in front of a priest and say, ‘I haven’t been to Mass for 21 years’.’
After making the phone call to Our Lady of the Way Parish at Petrie to check the weekend Mass times, reconciliation was the only hurdle left.
‘It was so terrifying. I rang some friends who I knew were practising Catholics. I wasn’t sure what to do, whether it was still ‘Bless me Father …”
Amanda’s friends gave her some more encouragement and she finally plucked up the courage.
‘I walked in and Father just said ‘Welcome home’. I felt such a relief. I felt a 15-tonne weight was lifted off my shoulders. It was wonderful.’
The priest who welcomed Amanda was Fr Peter McCartin, whose Petrie parish was about to start a program for people like her.
The six-week program, Catholics Returning Home, is new to Australia and proved an outstanding success in its first run in Petrie.
Although Amanda returned to Mass before the program started, she participated anyway and is glad she did.
‘There’s going to Mass, and there’s going to Mass,’ she said. ‘At primary school you’re herded into church and you watch the priest up the front but you’re not really listening.
‘Doing the program (Catholics Returning Home) let me open my ears. I opened my ears to what God was saying to me.
‘Since the program I have listened to Scripture and engaged more in the Mass, and I’ve become part of the (parish’s) music ministry.
‘(The program) gave me a renewed faith – a different level of faith. It feels wonderful.’
Amanda said Church participation was on the backburner for her after she left primary school but in the past few years she had had a ‘niggling urge to come back’.
‘I didn’t have pressing issues that drove me away from the Church. I just drifted away.’
Issues of the world – war and life – rekindled thoughts of ‘returning’.
‘It makes you think about your faith, and where your family’s heading. Life’s tough.
‘You pray to God on your own but you need to be part of the Church – to be part of a community.
‘I’ve thought about this for years.’
From seeing Petrie parish signs along a main road and reading some of the events and activities they promoted, Amanda had the feeling this was a welcoming community and that was why she made the approach.
Natalie Cook, also a young mother, was another participant in Catholics Returning Home.
She had been ‘looking to reconnect with the Church’ for some time when she noticed an advertisement in a local newspaper for the program and thought this was her chance.
Natalie had been a student at Catholic primary and secondary schools but, once she started work, she dropped her Church participation.
‘I had other things in my life.
‘It had been about 15 years since I had been going (to Mass) regularly but I’d been wanting to reconnect for a while.
‘I’d go to church at Christmas and Easter and wanted to reconnect but I didn’t feel I belonged. Having children made me think about it a bit more.’
Natalie said she did not have friends in the parish and knew no one there, but the advertisement presented ‘something formal like a course that meant I had more right to be there. It gave me a path back’.
Having been through the program she now has a sense of hope that she is not alone.
‘I felt rejuvenated. (The program) awakened all these things that I’ve put on hold for a long time.
‘The whole aspect of my personality when I was growing up – like, I was involved in the liturgy committee at school – it was all packed away in a box, not looked at for years. That’s not to say I wasn’t living a Christian life.
‘I’ve rediscovered what I got out of (going to Mass) and out of being a Catholic.
‘I’m just happy to start going to Mass every weekend and meeting the people there.’
The emphasis in the sessions of Catholics Returning Home is to have the participants feel welcome, accepted and comfortable in rejoining the faith community and participating in its sacramental life.
And that was reflected in the feedback sheets from participants at the end of the program, with one of them praising its ‘friendly, caring and non-judgmental atmosphere’.
The ‘returning’ Catholics are given the chance to talk about why they ‘left’ and why they’re coming back, and to brush up on the Church today and the changes since Vatican II.
Fr McCartin said it was an excellent program with enormous potential.
‘You forget there are people out there longing to come back to the Church again but they’re not sure how or they feel there’s an awkward situation there,’ he said.
‘The likes of Amanda and Natalie have got so much to offer the community. They enrich the parish as much as we enrich them.’
Parishioners Jan Heath, Kathy Robbie and a team of others, including some who had had the experience of returning to the Church, ran the program at Petrie.
Jan, who has been involved in running the Little Rock Scripture program and evangelising overseas, said it was the most rewarding work she had done.
‘There are people out there wanting to come back but I think the bottom line is they just want to be loved and accepted.
‘They have a great desire to be loved and accepted by the Church.’
Jan said, of the six participants, five had returned to Mass.
‘But they didn’t just come on their own. One lady brought her sister, another her three children and her mum, and another brought her son.’
The program has generated a great deal of interest around Brisbane archdiocese and elsewhere in Australia.
The parish has received phone calls from six other dioceses, and Jan has trained people in Townsville and three Brisbane parishes to run the program.
Petrie is preparing to run another program in May.
Petrie parish and the archdiocese’s Commission for Evangelisation and Pastoral Planning conducted a workshop on Catholics Returning Home at the O’Shea Centre at Wilston last Saturday.
North Ipswich, Aspley, Bardon, Wishart, Woodridge, Hendra/Northgate, Redcliffe, St Johns Wood/The Gap and Carina parishes were represented. Sunnybank, Burpengary and Pine Rivers parishes also have people trained to run the program, and about six other parishes in Brisbane archdiocese have shown interest.