A woman was once told by a priest during confession that she’ll go to hell because she had an abortion.
Another woman wonders if her children are illegitimate because she’s divorced.
Somebody who has remarried, without obtaining an annulment, is not sure whether this constitutes living in sin.
These are actual experiences that have distanced some Southern Tier folks from the Roman Catholic Church. They’re also typical of the issues raised at a meeting held Feb. 23 in Elmira.
The gathering, “A New Year, A New Beginning,” took place at the Ss. Peter and Paul Parish Center. It marked a first-time collaborative effort by Chemung County pastors and staff to reach out to people who have been away from the church.
Severe weather conditions that afternoon limited attendance to four guests. Rosemary Bloise, pastoral associate at Church of St. Mary Our Mother in Horseheads, believes that many more had planned to attend but assumed the event was cancelled.
“There were twice as many parish representatives. But those four were the ones who were supposed to be there,” she said.
The event was originally planned so that people could submit written questions anonymously. But the atmosphere turned out to be so relaxed, an open discussion took place instead. “People were pretty forthcoming,” Bloise said.
“It was very eye-opening for us, and I certainly believe we answered many of the questions. I see it as moving forward,” added Maggie Johnson, faith-formation director at Elmira’s Our Lady of Lourdes.
Johnson noted that the session benefitted organizers as well as guests. “It was a run-through so we would know what to expect — how do you talk to someone who is fearful of you or has negative feelings?” she said.
For those who were unable to attend on Jan. 23, or didn’t feel comfortable attending, organizers encourage them to get in touch with the following parish representatives: St. Mary Our Mother — Rosemary Bloise, 607/739-3817; St. Mary’s Southside — Father Rick Farrell, 734-6254; St. Casimir/St. Charles — Mary Ann Philpott, 734-1622; St. Anthony/St. Patrick — Rose Bennett, 733-0300; Ss. Peter and Paul — Father Walter Wainwright, 732-1994; Our Lady of Lourdes — Maggie Johnson, 732-6261.
The idea for “A New Year, A New Beginning” had been surfaced by Bloise last summer to regional parish leaders. The effort was publicized via bulletin notices and written invitations at Masses during the Christmas season, in hopes of reaching people who may only attend church on major holidays.
St. Mary’s Parish in Bath, though not part of “A New Year, A New Beginning,” shares this initiative’s spirit: Deacon Raymond Defendorf, pastoral administrator, wrote a Christmas bulletin column inviting disenfranchised people back to the church.
“We have an obligation to warmly welcome home those, who for one reason or another, only come home for the holidays,” Deacon Defendorf told the Courier. “Who knows? Our hospitality and joy may pave their way to active church membership at some time in the future.”
At least one person from the Jan. 23 meeting appears headed in that direction. “One lady in particular approached me and asked for my phone number because she wanted to come and talk to me,” Bloise noted.
Bloise hopes for a similarly styled regional gathering later this year, perhaps in the late spring. “People just need a safe venue to vent. Whether it’s disillusionment, anger or hurt, they need a safe place to have their feelings validated,” she said.
Along with those negative feelings, there is often a sincere desire to return to church life. “People are so hungry for a deeper spirituality,” Bloise said. “We have to find a way to reach these people and make them feel welcome without feeling threatened or defensive.”
“I think people are out there that want it, but they need to be invited,” Johnson added, saying they may hesitate due to fear of being judged by a parish or by God: “They might think lightning will strike them when they cross that doorstep.”
However, Johnson said, getting beyond the doorstep is perhaps the most important part in this process.
“You don’t immediately solve those issues, but there’s a peace when you sit in a church. I think that’s how the healing starts,” she said.