Stifled by what she calls a rigid Roman Catholic upbringing in her native Poland, Anna Owczarek explored other faith traditions for years before re-examining her religious roots as an adult living in Canada.
"I did have a need or interest to find out the purpose of religion in my life and how it affects me," explains the 38-year-old Winnipegger about signing up for a course for returning Catholics held at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church.
"You have to be grown up to appreciate history, how history affected religion and how it evolved over time. This religion that I was baptized in began to make more sense."
Making sense of Catholic teachings, traditions and rituals is the purpose of the Catholics Coming Home course offered twice a year at St. Ignatius, says Richard Lebrun, a retired history professor who leads the course.
Marketed to confused, inactive and alienated Catholics, the six-week course to begin Thursday covers Roman Catholic history, Catholic values, the Second Vatican Council and theological concepts such as sacraments, the image of God and the importance of Jesus. Along with these are weighty topics; a significant part of the course includes participants getting to know each other and the issues surrounding their departure from the church, explains Lebrun, 79, who has led the course twice a year at St. Ignatius since 2007.
"What we try to do is create a warm, welcoming atmosphere," he says.
"They're welcome back. It's not so much for the sake of the people welcoming them, it's for the people coming back. We find them and they've been hurting."
Lebrun says this program, based on the book Catholics Can Come Home Again by American author Carrie Kemp, is deliberately run by lay people to make the course less threatening.
Although it reaches out to inactive Catholics, he warns the course isn't meant to be a support group or a place of healing for those seriously wounded by the church.
"Some people have been so hurt by the church it would be psychologically dangerous for them to come back," he says.
For Nicola Schaefer, who took the course the first time it was offered and then promptly took it again, meeting other inactive Catholics and talking about their experiences inside and outside the church nudged her back to her Catholic roots.
Educated at a Catholic boarding school in England from ages five to 16, she resented what she calls indoctrination at the hands of the church and left the faith completely for half a century. She says that decision was made easier because her late husband was an atheist, but she still felt some inner stirrings to be connected to a church.
"I felt uneasy for decades because I felt unattached to any spiritual home," says Schaefer, 72, who now leads the course at St. Ignatius with Lebrun.
"I still don't feel horribly worthy. I have lots of questions about Catholics and I think the church has a lot to answer for."
Lebrun says those types of questions, as well as a spiritual longing, are common among participants, whether young adults or senior citizens.
"Often they say 'I've never stopped praying,' " he says. "Some of them tried other Christian churches but never felt at home."
Some participants left the church because of traumatic experiences, and others, such as Owczarek's husband Mark Cerar, just drifted away in adulthood.
After completing the course, the couple attended an intensive Bible study course at Holy Rosary parish, where they now attend, and both experiences have deepened their understanding of the faith they were raised in.
"We've learned a lot more about our faith than we ever knew," says Cerar, 51.
"There I am, I have no interest in Christianity, no interest in the church and then I started exploring it. Why?" adds Owczarek.
"This course was a great slow step in allowing me to understand it."
Reaching the out-of-reach
IF you're an inactive Catholic thinking about venturing back to the fold, where might you hang out?
For Richard Lebrun, answering that question is a continual challenge. The lay leader of a Catholic program welcoming inactive Catholics back to the church knows that the people he's hoping to reach aren't the ones who attend mass or parish events or read Catholic newspapers, so advertising in those venues isn't necessarily effective.
"There are some big archdioceses in the United States who have put money into big TV ads," says Lebrun, referring to an extensive multimedia campaign (www.catholicscomehome.org), which drew 200,000 American Catholics back to church.
The Catholic church in Australia is launching a similar campaign later this year.
Lebrun's approach is more modest. He's spoken to priests in Winnipeg, put out the usual announcements and relies on word-of-mouth advertising. He's considering using social-networking sites such as Facebook to promote the course, but says until now, a small ad in the Free Press has been the most effective way to reach potential participants.
Lebrun says the six-week course called Catholics Coming Home gives inactive Catholics -- a term he prefers to "lapsed Catholic" because it is more neutral -- an opportunity to air their past grievances, share their pain and explore what the Roman Catholic Church is about now.
Although it is the only one of its kind in Winnipeg, the upcoming session of the course at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church has attracted just one registrant so far.
"We may have met the market in Winnipeg for people who are interested in this sort of thing," muses Lebrun, a former University of Manitoba history professor who has taught the course for the last five years.
"It maybe all the bad press that the Catholic church has had over the years has turned people off."