.- Social media sites are a popular way to connect with family and friends, and a new diocesan Facebook page will do just that with Catholics who have left the Church in Arkansas.
"At the Chrism Mass, (Bishop Anthony B. Taylor) talked about the need to welcome home those Catholics who've been away. I thought 'we've got to offer more.' Statistics out there say that fallen away Catholics are the third largest denomination in the United States," said Chuck Ashburn, diocesan director of religious education and Christian initiation.
More Catholics live in Arkansas than most think, if you count those who no longer count themselves as members of the Church.
Ashburn, who began working for diocese in July, wants to extend that reach to Catholics who have left the Church or don't come regularly.
"That is one of the greatest media sites to reach people. I never would have been on Facebook if it wasn't for Bishop Taylor," he said. "I know how I've found friends from high school that are all over the country. And I thought that is a great forum to give those who have fallen away -- to offer them a way back home."
"Arkansas Catholics Coming Home" will debut on Facebook Sept. 10, to coincide with the bishop's homily, "Open Your Hearts in Welcome."
The page will host weekly discussion on issues and topics related to those who have left the Church. It will also guide them to information available at the Diocese of Little Rock website and to parishes in their area.
"We're not looking to find the Catholics who've gone away and teach them about the Catholic faith. This is a healing ministry. These people who've left the Church in some way have been wounded -- in countless ways from the sexual abuse scandals, to the myths about being excommunicated, to a priest who said something that they didn't like or hurt them," he said. "We need a program in place that will let them tell their stories and let them experience healing, and then integrate them back into the parish and educational things."
Ashburn's not new to the Church in Arkansas, as he began studying for the diaconate four years ago. He worked for 11 years at Catholic High School in Little Rock, serving five years as vice principal.
His journey to the Office of Religious Education and Christian Initiation ties in with the theme of returning home.
"When I came back in 2000, it was like coming home. Catholic High is my home. I loved being there and working with the boys. I loved my job," he said. "Now, I have the opportunity to reach out and touch the lives of 110,000 Catholics. At Catholic High, I had 700. God had been preparing me along the way for this."
As part of his welcome process, he plans to travel to as many parishes as he can. He wants to help the people working in the parishes, by providing tools they can use in reaching out to others.
"In the Scripture, Jesus uses the parable of the lost sheep," Ashburn said. "The shepherd who has a 100 sheep and he loses one; wouldn't he leave the 99 to go find the one? And the rejoicing that will happen when he finds the lost sheep. In my mind if we find the one, only one, then we have rejoicing because we brought one person back home."
Several parishes around the state are already using programs to welcome back Catholics. To make the process easier for those who want to start a ministry to welcome Catholics back to the Church, Ashburn wants to offer a selection of programs and resources for parishes.
His goal is to eventually have a program welcoming back Catholics in all parishes.
"We are the body of Christ. We have to be his open, welcoming arms," he said. "As Christ put the sheep on his shoulders -- the lost one that he found -- and carried him back. That's why we need to welcome them home, because that's who we are, that's what the Catholic Church is."
Bishop Taylor's video and audio recordings in English and Spanish, and many other resources: www.dolr.org/bishop/openhearts.php
Printed with permission from Arkansas Catholic, newspaper for the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark.