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What can we do if a loved one lapses from the faith?

I don’t know any Catholic parent of adult children who doesn’t have a lapsed member of the family (or even more than one.) It is a common problem in the circles I move in. I have heard of home-schooled Catholic families where this is not the case, but even among them you find members who choose, for whatever reason, to walk away. I write this having just read The Saint Monica Club by Maggie Green (Sophia Institute Press), in which the author shares her own sorrow at experiencing the Faith rejected by one of her children and suggests remedies for other grieving parents.

Saint Monica was the mother of Saint Augustine; she is celebrated for having spent 15 years weeping and praying about her son’s apostasy before his conversion at the hands of St Ambrose of Milan. The Club dedicated to her is an invisible one of prayer, sacrifice and fortitude, shown by all the other mothers in Saint Monica’s position, who long for their loved ones to return to the Church, trusting in God but often waiting many years – even a lifetime in some cases. As the author writes, somewhat wryly, “All who become members of this club…wish they weren’t members.”

Maggie Green’s is a book of “joyful hope”, though without easy solutions. The word “joyful” is designed to remind readers that hope always includes joy as much as sadness; no-one is attracted to sad-faced saints, as St Teresa of Avila might have observed. Describing her child who lapsed as her “prodigal”, Green invites readers to pray and also to fast regularly for their own prodigals, constantly reminding them that “Real life lived with those you love, whether they believe or not, may lead you to a deeper faith when you least expect it and reveal something of theirs in the process.”

Christianity implies the Cross; but suffering is not meant to crush us so much as to help us deepen our own faith along the way; and in this process we will find the best way to approach our children. We will learn that it is not we who have “failed” to pass on our faith, though we have probably made mistakes; despite our best efforts, our children exercise their own free will as they mature – “a vexing reality in all God’s children”, as Green comments.

She suggests that when we pray we take advantage of the Church’s rich resources: the saints, our guardian angels, godparents, Confirmation saints and so on, so that we do not feel isolated in a lonely vigil of maternal concern and anxiety. In a startling phrase, she states, “We are waiting for one who is dead to be alive again, for one who is lost to be found.”

She also warns readers to discuss the prodigal only with those people, such as a close friend, or a priest, who will grasp the spiritual dimension and the sorrow felt, rather than merely register uncomprehending sympathy. And again, if the wayward son or daughter is still living at home “and you have younger children you are raising, remind your prodigal that as an adult he or she must be respectful of your values and not undermine your work in raising your other children.”

“All behaviour is communication” – the words one of Green’s college tutors told her; in other words, our example is key: to be joyful about what we believe, to be able to give a reasonable and coherent account of it, not to harass or badger our “prodigal” and always to remain open to the slightest indication of a softening of attitude. This is a wise and compassionate book, well worth sharing; its sub-title is “How to wait, hope and pray for your fallen-away loved ones” – which sums it up.