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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. stlouis2626

    If you evaluate the Catholic Church based on its members, you will always be disappointed – it's a hospital for the sick – leadership included. Finding a bad Catholic is so easy I'm surprised anyone is shocked when this occurs....and it's been like this since the beginning. Take a look at Judas, or Peter's denial, Thomas' doubt, the bickering between James and John, or Paul's fight with Barnabas. The Church has never been free from scandal because it's made of up of sinners.

    Rarely do I see anyone in these comments actually make a reasonable argument against it's teachings. Just a lot of 'priests are pervs', the church only wants money, the church hates science, and I know better than the church. If you do know better, please make a logical argument. Nothing in Catholic Church teaching can contradict reason and logic....and there has never been a scientific discovery that contradict's the churches teachings. When I failed in all my attempts and realized this, there is no other choice than the Catholic Church. I don't like all of their rules, but they are the only ones defending and preserving all the teachings of Jesus – not just the easy ones.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • mdreader

      All very nice, but the LEADERSHIP of the RC Church has led a campaign of enormous whitewashing, coverup, and denail of the abuse that occurred to mosty young boys while under its watch. Isn't this enough for you??? How blind are you to still enter their doors? You can find the same teachings elsewhere without having to tolerate the rest.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
    • mdreader

      One cannot "preseve and defend the teaching of Chist" and at the same time protect, deny, payoff, conceal, etc. the abuses levied by priests towards young boys. These are absolutely not compatible actions. I assure you most emphatically, any "preservation and defense" of Christ's teachingsby the RC Church are falling onto totally deaf ears by Christ or his Father.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Beweaver

      Very, very well said. Every time I see an article about Catholicism in the mainstream media, I scan the comments for signs of intelligent life and rarely find any. We live in dark times. Thanks for sharing.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:53 pm |
  2. jimbo

    Hey "Recovering Catholic" has been my joke for years, except I didn't just trade one delusion for another. It took a lot to admit it, and years to do it, but I denounced all worldly religions outright. There might be something else out there, but we certainly don't know that here and now. To claim that sheep herders thousands of years ago figured out the biggest mystery of the cosmos is beyond ridiculous.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  3. mdreader

    If a Catholic has not left by now,,,no comment needed.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  4. AtPeace

    >>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.”

    It's call brainwashing children at an impressionable age.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  5. UpperDex

    From Observer: "They want to decide what is right or wrong, invent their own system of morality"

    Gosh darn-it all anyways...that's exactly what religion is all about...talk about hypocrisy at its finest...Observer wins that award!!

    June 19, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  6. Beweaver

    If you are someone who is trying to figure out whether or not you want to be a Catholic, I would recommend focusing initially on the story of Jesus Christ. If the story of JC doesn't move you, then really, isn't everything else irrelevant? But, if the story of JC appeals to you, then the next question might be how can I incorporate what I like about his life into my own?

    If this describes you, then I recommend you read 1 book: The Life of Christ by John O Brien 1957. This is a Catholic point of view biography of Christ. It weaves together episodes of the Gospels with histories about those episodes to create a simple, clear picture of who Christ was. There's no ambiguity about the picture painted in that book. You can be sure that if you read that book and it doesn't move you, then you are very very likely to not want to be a Catholic. (this is not to say there aren't other ways to sample the Catholic experience, for example, through volunteering with a Catholic charity). Now, if you read that one book–which is really sort of like taking the Bible and making it more understandable and readable-and the life of Christ moves you to come closer, then I highly recommend your next stop be biographies of the saints. Why? Because if you want to be a catholic a logical question to ask is what is possible if I lead a deeply catholic life–if I give up everything and devote myself to this religion, what is possible? The lives of the saints spell out very clearly what is achievable. At the same time, it answers the question, why would anyone want to be catholic? Now, if you get into the lives of the saints and and reflect on the life of Christ, then you will know whether or not you are "supposed" to be Catholic. It took me 40 years to figure this out. I'm giving it to you for free.

    There is one final hurdle. If Catholic spirituality appeals to you, you have to confront the organization of the Catholic Church. Pope, Bishops, Priests, Nuns and lay people. Sacraments, Mass. Scandals, haters, bigots. There is a cost associated with maintaining a uniform approach to maximizing the experience of being Catholic. The cost is that you have to deal with people. People make mistakes, they are prone to error and unlikely to accept responsibility for their misdeeds. You may have great ideas about how to deal with people–which are better than how the Church currently deals with such things. Pat yourself on the back. But keep in mind, this is the secondary aspect to the religion. This larger article about being catholic always addresses this surface aspect of being Catholic. Show me someone who has had a normal upbringing and been exposed to the depths of Catholic spirituality but chooses something else, and that person has my respect. I don't begrudge them of anything and with them well...as I do all people.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
    • Horus

      I have a much better book recommendation: The God Delusion

      June 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • jimbo

      Just because it appeals to you doesn't make it true at all. It appeals to me that I am rich, drive a fancy car, and have 20 hot girlfriends. Just because I want it to be so, that doesn't mean I have any of the above.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  7. Chris

    What a biased article. How about a counter article on how many Jewish, Protestant, atheists have converted to the Catholic faith. (Jeff Cavins, Scott Hahn, STeven Ray, etc, so on). I have been a life long Catholic. I was educated from 1st grade to the end of high school in Catholic schools. Unfortunately, I became a lapsed Catholic for a while and then God called me back. I took the time then to get serious to learn my faith as if I were a convert. The more I learned the more I loved, and the closer I felt to my Lord and God. It has made me a humble person, a person who is loving, forgiving, and charitable with my time and my heart. Yes I'm a sinner and alway will be but I'm trying to be better each and every day. Catholics are like anyone else..we are all sinners, no matter what faith we are in. We get it "right" at times and "wrong" at others. We Catholics don't think we are better than anyone. We just believe in our faith and the values it upholds–life, love, peace, justice. As the society has grown further away from principles and virtues, the Catholic church has become more coutner cultural, so of course it is not popular. So what? I don't want a church that asks for a show of hands to change "policieis" I want the truth. Faith is not a political party. You should belong to the faith you believe to be the TRUTH as given by God, and when you do you should follow it with all your heart. That is how I feel about my faith. Everything I am and everything I stand for is rooted in my faith and though I fall so far short, I strive to be Holy as Jesus is Holy each and every day. it has made me a much better person. You do not have to believe what I believe but I truly hope you do because my faith has made me someone who cares more about others than myself, cares more about people than things, and do everything I can for the sake of my brothers and sisters in need, even laying down my life. Yes you have a right to trash my religion. I would not trash yours or anything about you as a person–perhaps that is how we differ.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Delusions 3:15

      Nope. We're the same. Some can live without the crutch.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      It is because it rarely happens.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  8. mark

    Want to live a lie? Go to church. Want to live a true life? DON'T go to church. Pretty simple.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Beweaver

      Simpleton.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • John Simmons

      The majority of the tone here can be summed up in – I don't believe therefore I'm smarter and better than you, if you choose to believe you are a moron.

      I guess if you don't believe it could be because your too busy worshipping Obama

      June 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  9. Andy

    I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic grade school, but discovered some important information in my early 20's: The Christ figure I had always been curious about was not going to return someday...far off into the future. The World Teacher is already here, emerging right at this moment into the everyday world as a man concerned about modern issues. No, I'm not a religious nut, and I don't associate myself with any particular belief system. I'm convinced that the Teacher awaited by many faiths is here to educate humanity on how to achieve peace, end starvation in the midst of plenty through nation sharing with each other, and to remind us of our true nature as spiritual beings all on a path together. I'd suggest looking up author Benjamin Creme and reading what he has to say. There are many signs worldwide proving something intruiging is developing. Even some journalists are now taking note.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
    • Andy

      Follow up: a good source of info concerning my comment above is Share International

      June 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
    • Beweaver

      I'm a Catholic and I believe in the UFO phenomenon. I also think there is something intriguing happening with crop circles. But it is a ginormous leap from that to what amounts to a new religion baked with tons of new assumptions about the universe and no way for an individual to verify their truth. Sorry, I'll take the incremental path....

      June 19, 2012 at 1:32 pm |
    • Jonline

      Jesus Christ can only be on this planet if you follow his teachings and not him. People have killed in his name. People have enslaved people in his name. It's all silliness. He wants you to love one another. Period. End of conversation. If you do not accept and love everyone, then you are not living his words. Gays, Sinners, Muslims, Hindus – love them all, judge none of them.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
    • Andy

      Beweaver and Jonline,

      Yes it's a far stretch from UFO's to an enlightened civilization, but those who are visiting are surely more sane than this planet of nations competing for resources, polluting the water and land while still using fossil fuels, fighting in "God's" name....

      The Teacher I'm referring to – known by some as Maitreya – actually does not come to judge. And I agree! The key is to change within, not look for a guru. This teacher is here to show us that we, ourselves, are mighty spiritual beings in potential. He is not concerned with being recognized so much as the path of Love and Sharing becoming the ways to peaceful co-existence. If we do not end war and create social & economic justice, we are doomed. Sharing, Maitreya says, is the way back to our source. It's the only real way forward. Every Catholic would agree with the idea of sharing, surely. It's so simple and yet it will change our civilization radically, for the best.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  10. Partyman JG

    Dennis Miller said it best. "I went to confession the other day. I went in and said, Father, you go first."

    June 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  11. Patti

    Well then Victor, let's hope the Church takes Jesus' edict to heart and gives all THEIR wealth to worthy causes.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  12. Bogusreligions

    The nuns taught us in Catholic school that all Catholic priests were hand picked by God. Why would Jesus (who is God)—and who knows the future (and what people will do and not do)—choose abusive priests to carry on his work on earth? So, that just doesn’t make sense. The answer must be is that all religions are bogus. God would never allow “HIS PRIESTS” to do any harm to any of “HIS CHILDREN.” There is a reason why we are here, but we’ve yet to figure it out. Yet, we must continue to be generous and kind to all—even if there is no heaven (as we were led to believe). AMEN.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      You're still hung up on a simple explanation of Holy Orders that was given you as a child? Still confused as to how and why pedophiles gravitate to occupations that put them into contact with children?

      June 19, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
    • Beweaver

      God hand picks everyone for everything but that doesn't mean he is a puppet master and it doesn't mean there isn't a devil.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:35 pm |
  13. Catholic no more

    I went to Catholic school for 6 years. Anytime I meet some else who attended Catholic school I ask if they go to church. I haven't found one yet. Catholic school is a sure fire cure for catholicism. I consider myself a free thinker. I no longer believe in organized religion and actually believe it's one of the most divisive things humankind faces. I believe as our founding fathers did. Holy books and flags do not mix. I also believe once a church becomes a political action committee, non-profit status should be revoked.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  14. Tom

    Chances are.....I only believe in one less god than you. I have outgrown my need for an imaginary friend.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  15. bvilleyellowdog

    They remind be of the teapublicans – who are also busy "purifying" themselves out of existence.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  16. Joe

    How is it everyone is saying the Catholic church is all about the money? These must be people who have no idea what Jews pay to be part of a temple? The dues are far higher for that then what most ever give to the Catholic church. The reason why most people turn away from being Catholic is that they are lazy and don't like rules. Yes the church will make you feel guilt if you miss mass all the time, they want you to be a community. They expect you to come once a week, if you are not able to fit in time for god and the church once a week you should either feel like you let yourself and your family down or you should not go since it clearly does not mean much to you. There are many rules to being a Catholic most people are too lazy to follow them so they stop going and tell everyone else how bad it is. There have been lots of mistakes made in the church but there are lots of mistakes made within the other relgions, the media like cnn will not report those to you. Might get people really mad to hear the truth.....

    June 19, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  17. Tim

    It's the lack of fulfillment. To hold the host up and say that is the one power of amazement that should hold all your faith is ridiculous. You go to mass hoping to feel inspired. Other churches pay for performance. The Catholic church just needs an ordained priest to consecrate the host. They are pulling in priest for other countries who do not have the ability to communicate a coherent homily and you walk away feeling empty. When are they going to realize that without show, music, speaking ability, you can't keep an adult interested yet alone children. Our church's childrens mass mean the ushers are kids and the kids sing. The priest doesn't even do a homily geared towards kids because they can't relate. Our priest talked about adultry and prositutes at a childrens mass. Granted that was the reading for the week as prescribed by the church, but come on. Really!

    June 19, 2012 at 1:22 pm |
  18. Stevens

    To fill the void in your heart and soul you don't need a church or religion you need a personal relationship with Jesus the king of the Universe and the only 100% sure way to the heavenly father.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      I believe you are correct Steven. Having that relationship, I choose to celebrate and develop it within the Catholic Church via the sacraments.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:34 pm |
  19. John

    I have not been to service in a Catholic church not related to a wedding or funeral in a decade. The church lost me when it started using the pulpit as a means of telling our congregation how to vote during sermons and covering up for pedophiles. I honestly have no void in my life, feel closer to God than I ever did in the church and quite honestly am surprised that number isn't higher.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • effelbee

      Sadly, this happened to me at the Catholic chapel at West Point, where there was a handout about not voting for politicians who were pro-choice. It was overtly political and clearly a written violation of the IRS rules barring political activity for deduction eligibility for a church. No sensitivity for women in distress even. Bad.

      June 19, 2012 at 1:25 pm |
  20. iceload9

    Everyone finds the hypocrisy in religion. But religion isn't how we are, it's about how we should be. The new "holier than thou" is bragging about investments and retirement. People put their faith in money, the most fleeting god of all.

    June 19, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
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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.