Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

It’s a story as old as the flicker of a campfire and as new as the flicker of a movie screen: the hero sets off on a journey, is waylaid, faces challenges, and returns home wiser, having found reserves of unexpected strength.

It’s a story we live out each day in our faith lives, as we are constantly called to conversion. And it’s a tale felt even more dramatically in the lives of Catholic “reverts”: Catholics who left the Church — be it for four years or 40 years — and later felt drawn to renew their faith.

Landings International is one program that helps returning Catholics to feel welcome — and to make a safe landing — on their journey home.

Landings was founded in 1989, by Paulist Father Jac Campbell, whose community’s mission is centered on evangelization, reconciliation and ecumenical and interfaith relations.

When Father Campbell learned at his new assignment in the Archdiocese of Seattle that former Catholics with questions about returning to the Church outnumbered Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) candidates at a rate of about 10 to 1, he assembled a group of religious sisters and lay people. Together, they set about creating a ministry called Landings, which they launched at Father Campbell’s parish, St. Patrick, Seattle, later that year.

Today, there are more than 100 chapters at parishes throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Two parishes in the Diocese of Richmond host Landings programs: St. Gregory the Great and Church of the Ascension, both in Virginia Beach.

“It’s been one of the most fulfilling, rewarding ministries I’ve been involved in, to see people come back to their faith,” said Sister Brenda Query, a Sister of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and adult formation director at St. Gregory the Great, who has been involved with Landings off and on since it came to the parish in 1996.

In the late ‘90s, she was asked by Father Campbell to participate in a workshop held in the Diocese of Charleston to help initiate the program in that diocese.

The typical Landings session lasts between eight to 10 weeks. The group opens each meeting with a check-in activity and a prayer, then moves to discussing a topic for the evening. Participants are invited to share their faith stories if they feel comfortable doing so, and they are always welcome to ask questions they might have about returning to the Church.

Over the past 30 years, Landings has welcomed approximately 1.5 million Catholics back to their faith. Each has his or her own story and own sense of being called by name.

A sense of gratitude

Pete Nishnick, a self-described “cradle Catholic” originally from Pittsburgh, had been away from the Catholic Church for 30 years when his wife spotted an article on Landings in the Virginia Beach supplement to The Virginian-Pilot in 2005. With her encouragement, he called the Landings team leader at Ascension.

“My wife said, ‘Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is and call them,’ he said with a laugh. “You see, for some time I’d been feeling that I always prayed to God and asked his help when things became difficult for me and my family. I spent a lot of time asking — but never thanking him for listening to me. I felt it was time that I started giving back, but I didn’t know how.”

Nishnick continued, “I was very skeptical and uneasy about going through the program. I had been away from the Catholic Church for a long time and was afraid I was going to embarrass myself because I didn’t know much.”

He was surprised at how quickly he was welcomed by the Ascension community.

“I honestly believe that I was directed to the Landings program by the Holy Spirit, and it was probably the greatest thing I’ve ever done for myself,” Nishnick said.

Today, he is a Landings team leader.

“I take it seriously,” Nishnick said. “When I look around at Mass, and I see someone there who has gone through the program — it’s a warm feeling. I think, ‘Wow, Nishnick, you may have helped to bring that person back.’”

And the children lead them

Patty Kelly still has the letter — carefully preserved in a plastic sheath — sent to her by Sister Brenda welcoming her to the Landings program in 1997.

“It was my first concrete sign that said, ‘Yes, I’m coming back,’” she said. “Besides what was in my heart.”

St. Gregory gives a number to each Landings group; Kelly was part of Landings 2. Today, she is a team member who has just helped Landings 43 complete their journey through the course.

Kelly said she returned to her Catholic faith when her son began attending St. Gregory the Great Catholic School, the same school she had attended.

Her journey began when her son’s kindergarten teacher suggested that her son might feel more challenged in a private school. Kelly was mulling over the teacher’s advice when her sister called her out of the blue to tell her she was returning to the Catholic Church.

“Then I was at my hairdresser’s” Kelly explained, “and I told her about what my son’s teacher had said. She told me she was enrolling her daughter in a Catholic school. I was so surprised. I told her, ‘I’ve known you all of these years; I never knew you were Catholic!’ And she said, ‘I’m not — they just have the best private schools.’”

“I feel like God had to knock three times, before I got it,” she said.

She enrolled her son at St. Gregory, and a few years later, her two younger children joined their brother there.

“When my oldest began to attend St. Gregory’s, I thought, ‘I need to do this for my kids.’ And then later, I thought, ‘If I’m doing this for my kids, I should do this for myself as well,’” she said. “That’s when I decided to go to Landings. This is the faith I grew up with, and I really felt the need to share my faith with my children.”

‘I felt I was home’

Barbara Redner was raised Southern Baptist but had many Catholic friends growing up in upstate New York.

“I was fascinated by it,” she said, “By the symbols and what it all meant.”

As an adult, living in England with her husband and two children, she lived on a street filled with Catholic families and began going to Mass with them. She completed the RCIA program in England, but felt her biggest challenge came when she began to teach her son’s second grade CCD class.

“I learned more than ever preparing to teach them. And I fell in love with the Mass. I fell in love with learning about the Church,” she said.

After her marriage ended, Redner struggled to attend Mass. “It was hard to go from being a family of four to being alone. I would go to Mass and weep. I tried going to another parish, but I still wept, just among people I didn’t know,” she said.

Redner began attending a nondenominational church but felt uncomfortable with the occasional anti-Catholic comments she would hear there.

“One day, I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’” she said with a laugh. “And then I came to Mass, and I felt that I had come home. Some of the words had changed, but I knew I was home.”

Part of community

Participating in a ministry such as Landings is not at a requirement for returning to the Catholic Church, but some who have gone through the program say they have enjoyed the feeling of acceptance and belonging that meeting with such a group instills.

“What’s nice about this program,” said St. Gregory the Great parishioner Mary Wilson, “is that you know you are not alone.” “It’s such an intimate group,” agreed Kelly. “You really get to know people. And then when you go to Mass, it’s nice to see familiar faces.”

“We want to make it a comfortable environment,” said Amy Petersen, a Landings team member at Ascension. “We are just regular Catholics. We love our Church and we want to welcome people back. We’ve had young people with questions who want to learn more about their faith, as well as those who have been away for 20 or even 30 years.”

Whether one is a revert, volunteer, or revert-turned-volunteer, whatever one’s background or story — for those who have held life-long questions they want to explore or for those who are seeking to refresh their faith — the Landings community is a reminder that the Catholic Church truly is many parts, one body. It’s proof that one “can come home again.”

Editor’s note: For information on participating in Landings, call Sister Brenda at St. Gregory the Great, (757) 497-8330, ext. 306 or Janet Jones at Church of the Ascension, (757) 495-1886, ext 423.