What’s in a name?

Driving into the city, I passed a billboard advertising a programme for ‘Returning Catholics’.

I was instantly dismayed by the term and related monikers – inactive Catholics, lapsed Catholics, resting Catholics, non-practising Catholics – there are probably many more.

The labels are judgmental.

They point the accusing finger: ‘You have failed.” “You are remiss.” “You are negligent.” “You are missing out.”

They are more a summons to the Principal’s office than an invitation to develop a personal relationship with God.

These terms appear to be blatant, crass commercial terms, used to target a particular demographic with an advertorial message.

A bit like ‘Push Play’ to activate our exercise conscience, or  ‘Eat 5 a Day’ to solve our health problems.

They push the ‘guilt’ button or the ‘can’t miss out’ button but fail to dignify the individual, created in God’s likeness.

The names used to describe Catholics who do not attend Mass regularly are narrow and, I think, bigoted.

For me, they reflect an attitude prevalent over 50 years ago, when the Catholic Church was the one, true Church, and everyone else was dammed.

These names reflect man-made rules and strictures which have propelled spiritual seekers and thinkers to find like-minded individuals in other places.

They also reflect our very human propensity to put people in boxes or categories. A power game perhaps? Or a strategy – identifying our friends and our foes? Who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? The trouble with putting people in boxes is that we sometimes forget to re-open them – and people are neglected.

Good, honest, mature, spiritual seekers simply shrivel up in this containment. Where is the breath of the Spirit enlivening and inspiring them?

The labels we assign Catholics – inactive, returning, lapsed, daily Mass-goer, Sunday Catholic, Christmas Catholic – suggest that there is a right and a wrong way to encounter God – that these encounters are restricted to ‘practising Catholics’.

Oh, how wrong they are! God’s true nature is revealed everywhere, in every time, if we have the eyes and the ears and the mind and the heart to be open to these revelations.

Terms such as’ Inactive Catholics’ are exclusive, perpetuating an us-and-them mentality which the Second Vatican Council sought to eliminate. Would we use similar terms in our extended whanau -“lapsed cousin,” “inactive father,” “non-practising brother”? No.

We look first to the primary, life-giving relationships, acknowledge the inherent goodness of these relationships, and provide nurturing, enabling, empowering environments in which these relationships can grow and be restored.

We don’t herd them together and lecture with a didactic, knowledge-based approach.

These programmes, no matter the good intent of the organisers, seem to ignore practices, such as spiritual companioning, which acknowledge and respect the intrinsic integrity of each individual and walk alongside, without judgement or coercion. They fail to acknowledge the maturity and accumulated life wisdom of attendees.

These labels ignore the personal narrative of each person created by God in God’s likeness. They show a reluctance to walk in the shoes of the target audience; to ignore the richness of each person’s story and how it reflects the nature of God.

There seems to be a lack of openness; of receptivity to the experience of the divine outside of the institutional church – God is shackled.

What could we use instead?

We need positive, enriching names. Names which would cause a viewer think, “You see that in me?” or “I always felt excluded because I thought outside the square.” or “You think that too?”






Lover of God. Lover of people.

Fellow human being.


Or perhaps we don’t need to use any labels (and definitely no billboards).

Instead, we could reveal to each person we encounter the loving-kindness of God by becoming fully attentive and hospitable to the person we are with.

Liz Pearce, a mother of three adult children, loves story, writing, and dollmaking www.heartfeltdolls.weebly.com

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