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Welcoming Home inactive Catholics

LANDINGS is a lay-led programme which offers a safe, comfortable “landing place” for Catholics who feel distanced from the Church and who are thinking about coming back – for Catholics who may no longer attend Sunday Mass but who do come to Church for weddings, baptisms and funerals, and   who perhaps also feel drawn back at Christmas and Easter. They will have left the church for all sorts of different reasons. Some may have had unpleasant experiences within their Church community, others will have simply drifted away

Why should we begin such an apostolate in our parishes?   There are many good reasons.   There are an astonishing 10 distanced Catholics, potential returners to the Church, for every one RCIA candidate.   Pope John Paul II said “We have to enflesh the truth that there are no strangers or aliens in the Family of Families”.   Jesus tells us that we must leave the 99 and seek out the lost ones.   Canon law specifies that one of the responsibilities of a parish is to “ Bring the Gospel to those who have stopped practicing”   (this is found in Canon 528 and comes ABOVE “Bringing the Gospel to those who do not profess the faith”).

So why do distanced Catholics need a programme like Landings to help them return to the Church?   As long as there is no obstacle to them receiving the Sacraments they could come straight back to the Eucharist via Confession.   Whilst some might prefer not to join a group at all, many seem to feel a real need for support and friendship within a small, friendly group before venturing into the wider parish community.

Landings is not about teaching; these people have already been catechised, to some extent.   Many of them know as much about Catholicism as we do; others may need a lot of guidance.  Sometimes an invalid marriage will have to be sorted out before someone is allowed to return to the Sacraments. Returning Catholics all have differing needs, and giving them a series of lectures about Catholicism or putting them in an RCIA group with non-Catholics who are enthusiastically enquiring about the faith are therefore not ideal solutions.

Landings   provides a safe and comfortable environment in which 'returners' can get to know some ordinary parishioners   (the half dozen ‘welcomers’ in the group) and re-examine their beliefs. It is an opportunity for them to tell their stories, air their grievances and share their beliefs; more a ministry of faith-sharing than regular catechesis.   At the same time it is highly structured, with each meeting including a prayer session, someone’s spiritual faith story and a reflection on an aspect of the Creed.

Landings was devised in the USA almost fifteen years ago by a Paulist priest, Fr Jac Campbell. Helped by a group of lay people, it took him three years before he was satisfied that he had found a process which was enjoyable, simple enough to be led by ordinary parishioners, sufficiently structured to ensure that it would not be adapted into something else - and which really does work.

Landings has been described as a “ministry of compassionate listening”. Because it is not ‘teaching’ as such, the welcoming members of a Landings group need not be trained catechists, but should simply be friendly, non-judgemental and good listeners. They should also be ready to admit that they don't have all of the answers, and equipped to refer people with specific problems to the relevant specialists.   Landings is not counselling or group therapy but a mission of care, healing and hospitality.

Landings is more a tool of evangelisation and reconciliation than catechesis - distanced Catholics who return to the Sacraments via Landings often turn out to be great evangelisers themselves, and many are keen to continue in a Landings group as 'welcomers'   whilst others become deeply involved in other aspects of parish life.

The success of Landings could be due to the fact that it is simple, structured and gentle. It is not hard work; and it does not require a priest   to be part of the group which meets weekly for 8 or 10 weeks (though of course a priest may join the group if he wishes).    The only time he needs to be present is to cele br ate the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist at the Retreat day which ends the series of Landings meetings. Ideally he should also interview the returnees before they join the group, to assess whether there are any problems which need to be straightened out before they are eligible to return to the Sacraments.

Landings can renew the spiritual lives of the ordinary parishioners who form part of the group – whilst having a clear primary objective of apostolic outreach to inactive Catholics .    When run according to the guidelines, this is an inspiring programme which touches all who take part.   It could be a wonderful renewal process for any parish.

Nine training workshops have taken place in Britain since Landings was introduced here in Summer 2001, and it is already running in seven UK dioceses from Lancaster to Portsmouth as well as across the USA and Canada .    It does not compete with existing evangelisation programmes for people who wish to become Catholics or for practising Catholics who wish to deepen their faith. Instead it exists alongside them, complementing them and offering something new and exciting to the substantial numbers of Catholics who are open to returning to the Church but who need support and encouragement.