By Brigid Curtis Ayer
Prodigal Catholics leave and return renewed
CARMEL, IN — Do you know a “prodigal Catholic”?
Tom and Lisa Ponchak know first-hand the well-worn path of “prodigal Catholics” because they travelled it together.
More than 100 parishioners of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish gathered recently to hear the Ponchaks’ story of how they walked out the doors of the Catholic Church. Yet unlike some others, the Ponchaks’ story has this happy ending: They returned to the Church with great peace, joy and fervor. Tom Ponchak now serves as director of adult faith formation for the Carmel parish.
The couple, who are parents of six children, said they both grew up Catholic.
Tom described his family as “active Catholics” who prayed together regularly. He also benefited from growing up in a parish that had a vibrant youth ministry program. It was during his youth group experiences, Tom said, that he learned about having a personal relationship with Jesus. He went on to pursue a degree in theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Lisa described her upbringing as nominally Catholic. She left the Church at age 18, she said, but returned after a “gun-to-the-head,” near-death experience a year later. She also went on to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where she met her future husband. The two wed shortly after graduation.
Anxious to secure a job prior to their honeymoon, Tom took the first parish ministry position that was offered, at a parish in Maryland. It wasn’t a “good fit.”
Ponchaks unable to do the work of God at the Parish they landed in
“We had very different views about Catholicism and ministry,” he said. “I wanted to be able to give the youth the same experience I had — to encounter Jesus personally. We couldn’t do the ministry we felt God was calling us to do.”
The couple moved to Michigan, where Tom began teaching at a Catholic high school.
At the same time, the young couple felt they were “starving for community” and reached out to a local non-denominational church called the Vineyard for fellowship.
“We felt a real connection, a strong connection,” to that faith community, Tom said.
They continued to attend Mass for about eight or nine months longer. Then the pastor of the Vineyard invited Tom to be a youth minister.
He saw the invitation as an opportunity to do what he really felt God was calling him to do. He quit his job at the Catholic high school, and the Ponchaks left the Church.
Ponchaks joined Vineyard brand church, found Christian community
Then came the opportunity to move to Florida to start another church community with the Vineyard brand. As time went on, as head of that local community, Tom Ponchak said he began incorporating many of the things he knew as a Catholic.
The turning point came when the couple baptized their third child.
“We missed the sacred, and the sacraments,” Tom said. “We realized we weren’t giving our kids the fullness of the faith.”
It wasn’t long before they returned to the Church.
There were many lessons learned on their journey, the Ponchaks said.
• Don’t forget who you are. “We got our identity mixed up,” Tom said, and got caught up in focusing on “doing things for God, rather than knowing who we were in God.”
• Cultivate a sense of the sacred. “There is a temptation to make Jesus your buddy” in non-Catholic Christian churches, Tom said, but people are “enthralled by mystery” and the sacred liturgy.
“The liturgy isn’t ours. It’s God’s. Worship is made for him,” he said.
“The more the Church offers what the world doesn’t have, the more attractive.”
• There is unity in diversity. “We are the Church of the both/and,” Tom said. “It’s a big tent. There’s room for the Charismatic, to Gregorian chant, to the Latin Mass.”
While there is unity in diversity in the Church, he said, there also is a lot that Catholics can learn from Protestants. He encouraged Catholics to “smile.” Small Christian communities, reading Scripture devotionally and sharing the faith with others also topped his list of “to-dos” for Catholics.
• Embrace personal and communal faith. “We are called into a personal relationship with Christ,” Tom said, “but sometimes Catholics keep Jesus at a distance.”
It’s important to avoid the two extremes of religion
It’s important to avoid the two extremes, Lisa said. The first is the notion of “I love Jesus, but hate religion.”
Quoting Pope Francis, Tom said, “‘There are those who believe they can maintain a personal, direct and immediate relationship with Jesus Christ outside the communion and the mediation of the Church. These are dangerous and harmful temptations.’”
The second is the idea of “I love religion, but I don’t know Jesus.” Quoting St. Paul from his letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:5), Tom said, “Paul warns against those who ‘make a pretense of religion, but deny its power.’”
• Be naturally supernatural. “We all have received the fullness of the Holy Spirit,” Tom said. “We can improve in our yielding or get in the habit of unleashing the power of the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is there.”
He noted that St. Paul’s primary emphasis was preaching about the power of the resurrection. “We have something to offer the world that the world does not have,” he said, adding, “And it is part of our baptismal call to ‘go make disciples,’ to stand out in this world. It’s not an option.”
Parishioners react to the Ponchaks story
Kim Drake, an Our Lady of Mt. Carmel parishioner who attended the presentation, said what she liked most about the Ponchaks’ talk was it was “real.”
Leighton Drake, who serves the Carmel parish as faith formation director for children in grades K-8, said that unfortunately a lot of Catholics who may leave the Church don’t come back for marriage and baptism of their children, as their parents or Church leaders may count on.
David Proctor, also a member of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish, said he thought it was interesting that a couple who had attended Franciscan University of Steubenville decided to leave the Church.
Proctor, who volunteers with leading the parish Bible study program, said he believes small-group participation is key to helping people feel like they belong to a parish.
Stacy Maurer, who entered the Catholic Church in 2003, is a volunteer with children’s faith formation.
She said the Ponchaks’ talk resonated with her especially because of their emphasis on the importance of continuing to grow in one’s faith.
Maurer reiterated a point the Ponchaks made: “We have to remember that confirmation is not graduation. We must keep nourishing our faith.”
In their 10 years away from the Catholic Church, the Ponchaks said their single most important lesson was learning to trust that God is capable of using a person in ministry when it is God’s time and providing community within the Catholic Church.
“Sometimes when we find ourselves alone and not able to do anything, it’s because he wants to teach us a more valuable lesson of learning to be content in him and find our identity in him,” Tom said. “What’s most important is to stay connected to the sacraments and the Catholic Church because that is where we will truly find him if we draw deep and are willing to be patient. As we’ve matured through all of this, we’ve learned how to create community if it’s lacking rather than looking elsewhere.”
The Ponchaks’ presentation, “Prodigal Catholics,” is available on podcast.
The presentation was one installment of an ongoing series at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish called “Into the Deep.” The series offers unique, stand-alone topics designed to encourage Catholics to dive deep into their faith, or for those who are interested in exploring the Catholic faith, but are not yet ready to commit to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).
For more information on the “Into the Deep” series, visit www.olmc1.org/ministries/faith-formation-/adult-faith-formation/into-the-deep.