Why it hurts so much when a loved one leaves the church

Some questions never go away and never become easier to answer. They do not go away because they belong to the very business of being human. And they are never easily answered, not if you take seriously the pain of the person posing them.

Here is one such question, which I have heard many times as a priest: “My son...my husband...my daughter does not go to church. Father, I don’t understand. How can someone say that they don’t believe? I don’t know what to do. Do I argue? Do I pray? Do I do both?”


In such a conversation, companionship is more important than comment. Always share the suffering before you try to teach about it. Everyone wants to live a life that is meaningful. Everyone wants to be loved. So the business of being human does not get any harder than when there is a rupture between meaning and love, which is what happens when someone you desperately love rejects God, the word we use for what is most meaningful.

What can be said to someone stranded between meaning and love?

What can be said to someone stranded between meaning and love? The parable of the wicked vineyard tenants might be a place to start.

The parables stem largely from Jesus’ own preaching, so they give us rather direct access to his mind. In telling this story of the murderous tenants Jesus does more than admit that his proclamation will not be universally received. Whose is? No, with this parable, Jesus identifies his very person as the one who can and will be rejected.

The cosmic Christ, who is yet to come and to close our history, will be self-evident because he will gather history into himself. But the Christ who was crucified had to be something of an ambiguous figure. Some would respond to him; others would reject him. Until the cosmic Christ is revealed, this ambiguity remains. And so it must.

Why? Because the very gift of our creation demands the absence of God. God is not included in his own creation; God is not a part of our world, sitting at its summit. God withdraws so we can be ourselves.

The very gift of our creation demands the absence of God.

We use the word “creation” to affirm two things. First, that our world has an origin. It is not all there is. It has been given to us. Second, the gift is so perfect that our world stands free of God. Indeed, we were created by God and in God so as to stand free of God.

God’s gift of creation is so utterly complete that we can look at the world and not see the giver. There are no curtains to pull back from the world’s edge in order to see something like the great Wizard of Oz pulling levers. If everyone knew our world to be a gift, we would all recognize the creator who gave it, but the gift is so perfect, so perfectly complete, that it does not, of necessity, reveal anything beyond itself.

When we fall in love with the world—the sort of love Louis Armstrong summoned up in his song, “What a Wonderful World”—or when we fall in love with someone else in the world, we do sometimes sense that everything is a gift, which means that we know something of the giver, whom we cannot see. But is that the summit of human spirituality? Simply to sense that the world is a gift?

Christ comes among us as truly God and truly man. As God, he cannot and will not trample upon his creation. Our liberty comes from God, who simply is freedom, which is why God will never withdraw our freedom. As man, Christ comes among us to be both received and rejected. He comes to preach a kingdom of love and to die upon a cross. It must be both because if we cannot reject God, we cannot receive God. Only those who stand free of God, in the gift of God, can choose to love God.

Only those who stand free of God, in the gift of God, can choose to love God.

Christ first came among us as the great cipher. God creates a world that need not know him as creator. God enters a world that suffers terribly from not knowing and not loving its creator. When Christ first entered our world, it was not as judge or vindicator. He came as all lovers must: as one who could be rejected. Christ is crucified so that the love that created us can be revealed in the very love that redeems us.

But one must know how horrible a world without love truly is, one must want love and not to find it or find love only to lose it, to know that our world must be redeemed. In the use of our freedom, we can be as ignorant of our redemption as we can be of our creation. This is the will and the plan of God.

All this being said, it is very difficult for us to know who is rejecting and who is receiving God. It is possible to grow up in the church and to never have truly known the Christ within her. The blame may lie with ourselves or others or both.

Someone whose life seems to be one long series of mistakes might nevertheless love unselfishly, if only now and then.

Our church teaches us that simply being numbered among her members is no guarantee of salvation. She also enjoins us never to presume that we know ourselves to be among the elect. Our ignorance of self is every bit as large as our ignorance of others.

By the working of the Holy Spirit, the Son whom the Father sent into the world comes to us in so many ways. Someone who does not go to church can yet hold a newborn infant and know that this world is a gift, that there is a creator. Someone whose life seems to be one long series of mistakes and mishaps might nevertheless love unselfishly, if only now and then. Do the rest of us do more?

The church teaches that within the depths of conscience Christ can be heard. Some will do that in the church, especially when they cannot deny that here, in the City of God, they have met both creator and redeemer. Some will never have this clarity, but, at the very least, they can continue to yield to the myriad hints, to the graces, which God pours into our lives.

In his Confessions, St. Augustine records that his mother Monica once sought out the great St. Ambrose. In tears, she begged the good bishop to help her with her son Augustine, who openly mocked their Catholic faith. He is said to have answered her, “It is inconceivable that he should perish, a son of tears like yours.”

Love is the meaning of our world, though, admittedly, that so seldom appears to be true. Our world came forth from love, a love so full as to be almost imperceptible, until this same love emptied all of itself onto the wood of the cross.

Somehow Ambrose knew that love and meaning would come together and find Augustine, the one who was lost. They were too strong not to. Is that something that can be proven? Not at all, and that is the point.

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7 Philippians 4:6-9 Matthew 21: 33-43

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J Cosgrove
1 year 3 months ago


Are you saying that when a person leaves the Church, they are rejecting salvation? If not, what is the big deal if someone goes to Mass or not or rarely if ever thinks about God and what one is supposed to do?

I am not trying to be flip but the tenor of the America site is not salvation but an earthly social organization doing what they think are good works. Even you had a hard time getting to this as the word "salvation" was mentioned just once.


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