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'Recovering Catholics' reveal spiritual journeys
According to a 2008 poll, 31% of Americans were raised Catholic, but only 24% describe themselves as Catholic.
June 19th, 2012
09:36 AM ET

'Recovering Catholics' reveal spiritual journeys

By Jim Spellman, CNN

Denver (CNN) - Kristen Kelly was raised Roman Catholic, attended Catholic elementary school and considered herself a good Catholic, but when she was 21-years-old that changed.

“A coworker asked me if I believe in Jesus Christ,” she says.

Despite spending her entire life in the Roman Catholic Church she couldn’t answer the question.

“I never really got exposed to Christ," she says. "It was more about Mary and the Church and a condemnation of everything I was doing wrong.”

She looked at her coworker and saw someone who appeared to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and decided that was what she wanted. She said this prayer:

“Jesus I accept that you are my lord and savior, and I ask you to come into my life.”

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And from that moment Kelly, now 41 and living in Florida, considered herself born-again, and an ex-Catholic.

“I like to call us recovering Catholics,” she says with a laugh.

According to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religious Life and Public Life, 31% of Americans were raised Catholic, but only 24% now describe themselves as Catholic. Read the study (PDF).

That means about 1 in 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic. If they were a denomination they would be bigger than Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans and Presbyterians.

The total U.S. Catholic population has remained at about 24%, as immigrants have filled the pews the ex-Catholics have left behind.

Video: Why do some Catholic outsiders remain inside the flock?  

Kathleen Cummings , associate director at the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame, says that some people leave the Catholic Church after a defining event like the priest abuse scandals or because of a disagreement with the Church over social issues, but most leave because they feel their needs are not being met.

“They are not experiencing something that fulfills them spiritually,” Cummings says.

Church supporters are urging wayward Catholics to return to the fold. For example, Catholics Come Home, a nonprofit lay organization formed in 1997, has been putting out the welcome mat via the media.

The group has an interactive website www.Catholicscomehome.org and airs what it calls “evangomercials” on radio and television. The group says that since 2008 more than 350,000 people have “come home” to the Catholic Church through their campaign.

Tom Peterson, president of Catholics Come Home, says some worshipers who've returned to the Catholic Church report leaving because they had disagreements with church officials or had divorced and feared they wouldn’t be welcome. But, he says, the majority never really gave up on the Church.

“They just drifted away and life got too busy," Peterson says. "Most say they didn’t dislike the Church, nor were they opposed to the Church teachings.

“An overwhelming majority of returnees tell our diocesan partners that they came home to the Catholic Church, 'because you invited me,'" he says.

But it may not be so simple to lure back ex-Catholics like Matt Rowe, a 35-year-old married father of two living in Denver. Rowe attended 16 years of Catholic School in Illinois and attended a Catholic university.

But by the end of college, Rowe was adrift. He found himself disagreeing with the Church on everything from the role of women to the concept of original sin and what he saw as the Catholic Church’s dependence on guilt as a motivating factor.

Rowe gave up on religion for most of his 20s but never stopped believing in God. When he got married and had kids, he started feeling a void in his life.

“I wanted my kids to grow up in a religion, but not Catholicism,” he says.

After “church-hopping” for a few years, Rowe ended up at Pathways Wash Park, a multidenominational Christian church in Denver.

After years of feeling disconnected in the Catholic Church where he says sermons rarely connected to his life, he has finally found the connection he has been looking for at Pathways.

“I wanted spirituality. I wanted God. I wanted all those points to go back to what I’m dealing with today,” Rowe says.

Fred Viarrial, 59, grew up as an altar boy at St. Leo’s in Denver. Six days a week he donned his cassock and worked the 6 a.m. Mass.

“Books or bells. You are ringing the bells or moving the books for the priests,” Viarrial says.

But as he grew up he began questioning elements of Catholicism. One day, when Viarrial was somewhere between age 10 and 12, he had something especially embarrassing to confess, so he trekked over to a Spanish language parish where he was unknown.

“The priest pulled me out and spanked me on the spot,” Viarrial says with a laugh. “That got me to question this whole thing of confession.”

When he was just 14 the precocious teenager went so far as to schedule an appointment with Denver ‘s then-Archbishop James Casey to discuss his doubts.

“I took a two-page list of questions starting with the Hail Mary. I wanted to find them in the Bible, their origin … where is that in the Bible?”

Viarrial says the archbishop humored him but ultimately did not answer his questions.

He still believed in God, but was losing faith in the Church.

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By his 20s he was searching for a new church and ended up at Arvada Covenant Church, an evangelical congregation in a Denver suburb.

At Arvada Covenant he says the focus is on a personal relationship with Jesus and that his questions about his faith and the Bible are not met with derision, but with a search for answers through Bible study.

He has found a home at Arvada Covenant, but says he holds no grudge against the Catholic Church and still feels echoes of his Catholic upbringing in his faith today.

“It’s like a spiritual tattoo that you receive as a kid," Viarrial says. "Those roots don’t ever disappear, you just better try to understand them.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Colorado • Faith

soundoff (2,511 Responses)
  1. Irene

    I'll never belong to a church or religion that doesn't empower ME. I think the Catholic Church never got over the Dark Ages when Vandals and Goths overran Europe. Up went the stone walls and the "me and them" mentality. Why would you build expensive, massive churches, monasteries, convents and schools when you are surrounded by poor people? The expensive parochial system in America was started over a dispute over 1% of the bible. Catholics were burdened with creating a parallel school system because of some ecclesiastical hair splitting.

    October 25, 2013 at 5:56 am |
  2. abinnyHob

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    April 16, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
  3. loveisthecapstone

    VICARIVS FILII DEI

    He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

    December 24, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
  4. Patty Kogutek

    As a recovering Catholic I have shared my "journey" in my book, " A Change of Habit; a Spiritual Journey From Sister Mary Kateri to Sister Mary Vodka". Growing up as a "guilt sponge" I was caught up in a spiritual eddy hurling me into a convent to please my earthly father and my heavenly Father. After leaving the convent and the "habit" behind I found, that the guilt and the living to please others are difficult to break away from. I blog about how guilt affects us all. Check it out at

    December 11, 2012 at 7:53 pm |
  5. buy proxies

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    September 24, 2012 at 7:29 am |
  6. Nade

    The catholic church needs to have a hip hop like environment. You know huge sub woofers on the altar with wicked bass. Get rid of the gay pianos and pipe organs and let the hymns be sung in a cool rap style. This would get kids coming back to the church. This probably wouldn't go too well with everyone, but at least give it a try for the youth masses.

    August 28, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  7. SoldierOfConscience

    The church made a big mistake.

    When the first alegation for any so-called priest came out, they should have followed this procedure

    1. investigate with 'Priest'.
    2. if allegation is true, then
    2a. Ask priest why he did this. he will tell that he did it coz he is secretly g@y
    2b. Publicly defrock said 'Priest' and publicize his orientation. This will serve as public notice of what happens when you allow deviants.
    2c. Allow crimminial system to charge deviant.

    Then they would have been fine.

    July 13, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  8. Who invited me?

    I'm not interested in any journeys conducted by R* etards.

    All church following catholics and other religious people must be C* astrated so that they dont pass their illness to next generation.

    July 13, 2012 at 5:17 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      this is a red herring...I did not post this.

      July 13, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • SoldierOfConscience

      Or did you change your mind about posting what you REALLY felt?

      July 13, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      SOC
      No moron...I do not use terms like r etard

      July 13, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
    • SoldierOfConscience

      but you use words like moron. I find that hard to believe

      July 14, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  9. Glenn

    Christianity has it's origins in a tribe from the Middle East. It is a perception of the world founded in genetics not scienitific fact. This is why both Muslims and Christians can ignore the science in favor of their personal perceptions of the world enforced in their respective religions.

    Unless one has an innate perception of the world which is evident in the scripture of your choosing, do not assume you should be recovering. You should believe that your own ancestory is not of this tribe and you have no innate understanding of a world not supported by science.

    Other people of other colors and other cultures also have the same perception of the world. This is the nature of a specific physchological type as founded in genetics. Being "filled with the holy spirit" is a result of nature not a connection to some unseen god.

    June 30, 2012 at 2:17 pm |
  10. Venerable Catholic Lady

    Dear WOW,
    And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build MY CHURCH, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Matt 16 18-19
    He who hears you, hears Me, and he who rejects you rejects Me, and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me. Luke 10:16 May God bless you on your Faith Journey.

    June 24, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • loveisthecapstone

      My dear venerable Catholic Lady,

      If Peter was the Rock, then why did Jesus call him Satan? Matthew 16:23, Mark 8:33. (in the same chapter, just five verses later). Please don't tell me Jesus was messed up. He knew exactly what He was saying.

      "But Jesus turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men." http://bible.cc/matthew/16-23.htm

      Best swallow the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth–because he who adds or takes away one word from the Book of Life won't be in the Book of Life. Rev. 22:18.19

      The Rock is none other than the revelation of "who do men say that I am"

      and Peter answered, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God"

      and upon this rock He will build His church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

      On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
      All other ground is sinking sand
      All other ground is sinking sand.

      December 24, 2012 at 10:49 pm |
  11. felix el gato

    The Catholic Church is all about money and control. They will be held accountable.

    June 22, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • glorybe1929

      Money. and sec., '!1swhat else is there?
      That's what males the word go around. CHRISTIANS ARE IN THE WORLD. BUT NOT OF IT'

      January 28, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
  12. Red Cardinal

    What is happening to the Church ..... What's missing ..... The social aspect or ...... Spiritually ? Hard to say whether either of these this can be a deciding factor on their own. You need both. What comes first?

    June 22, 2012 at 12:59 pm |
    • Wow

      No where in the Bible does it say that you need the church. A person just needs Jesus as there Lord and Savior. Please prove me wrong with scripture.

      June 22, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  13. Red Cardinal

    Advice to the Cathollic Church in Southern Europe ......... Have you seen Islams approach to fasting ....... Sunrise to sunset ....... But then the feast begins ........ Scrumptious food as much as you can eat after sunset ......... Togetherness ....... Being connected ..... Lots of people eating and drinking ...... Sharing the day ............... Touch points to break bread socially ...... Introducing people to each other ........ Conecting people ..... It is as simple as that........ Try it with your next Sunday collection. ..... Serve foi GRAS and a good French wine ..... Read a few inspirational verses and let people enjoy each others company ..... Don't hide ....... Do not retreat ...... Take the high ground. ............ You have the people ..... Connect them.

    June 22, 2012 at 12:45 pm |
  14. Red Cardinal

    Any organization, including a Chruch, thrives on people feeling connected socially. it is no different to a bowling club, a drinking club, a book club, a running club, whatever. If you do not feel connected socially why belong? Some Churches today are great financial investments where the 'elders' / shareholders know how to make money. So be it and if something comes together spiritually well that's a bonus. If you cannot belong to something to please yourself, you will never belong to please others or God, or Jesus, or Mary. The first reason for belonging is social in nature and not spiritual. I belong to a great Catholic parish where I feel so connected socially. The spirituality may rub off on me someday but at the moment I am happy to belong. I derive so much benefit from all functions and connections ..... Even good investment advice ...... Sharing the ups and downs of being human ...... Etc .......... In my view Jesus was an expert in being social. Visit people, talk to them, bring them together, have a meal, talk about life, solve the world's problems, drink a glass of wine, walk along the road, fish, collect friends around you, share common sense advice, solve the odd predicament. Start with connecting people .... Whatever ...... Your organization will thrive. Do not rely on all the studies and professors that give you advice that simple people will never understand and be able to follow. Get people to meet, create the touch points that make them belong socially and you are on your way to a thriving community. Out of that may come one saint in a 100 years. That's fine.

    June 22, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  15. ElreyJones

    What is going on with the Catholic Church in Southern Europe. France is being taken over by invading Muslims, but where is Italy, Portugal, and Spain heading?

    June 22, 2012 at 6:00 am |
    • Red Cardinal

      Dear Elrey. ..... Don't be concerned about the invasions .... It's not something to fret about. ......... Concern yourself with being connected and bringing others together. Never be isolated. Join a bowling club ...... Drink a gin and tonic ...... Talk to others and all anxiety will disappear. Islam knows how to connect people ......... Why shouldn't you?

      June 22, 2012 at 12:39 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.