Can the Church Return to the Faithful?

I once had a friend with a boomerang. One day we took it to the Jersey Shore and I watched as he whupped it around. It was beautiful: the young man and the boomerang, the bright sun and the water. Then, late in the day, he tossed it out over the ocean, and the boomerang didn’t come back. For a while we stood together, looking out, wondering whether we might just have lost sight of it. We glanced around nervously, on the off chance that it might yet clock us on the head, returning from a direction we had not anticipated.

I thought of that long-lost boomerang recently, when the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would be visiting New York in September. It will most likely be a one-day visit, including a speech at the United Nations and probably a Mass at Madison Square Garden and a visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

This pope has gotten rave reviews for his supposedly progressive views, although it may be only that he seems progressive when compared to Pope Benedict XVI, the pope whose philosophy, at times, sounded like the pastoral version of “Get off my lawn.” It is hard to imagine a pope being chosen as the Person of the Year by both Time magazine and The Advocate (a leading L.G.B.T. magazine), but Francis was, in 2013. He’s said that evolution and “the notion of creation” were not “inconsistent”; urged the church to help the poor; and asked, “Who am I to judge?” on the issue of gay priests. The best measure of the pope’s liberalness might be that Rick Santorum says he finds him “very difficult to listen to.”

Yet it’s worth remembering that Francis has not actually changed any church doctrine on these issues. And he hasn’t done a thing to walk back Benedict’s egregious comments on transgender people, which suggested that in living our lives openly, we somehow make human dignity “disappear.” Then, this week, Francis praised Slovakian pilgrims for defending the family, in a quote that appeared to give support to a referendum in their country scheduled for today that could ban marriage and adoption for same-sex and transgender couples.

Thanks to attitudes like this, the Roman Catholic Church has spent years driving away the faithful.

I recently received an email from a stranger who suspected I was her cousin. Miraculously, it turned out she was right: The family tree connects us through our great-great-grandfathers, a pair of Dublin brothers, Owen and Matthew Boylan, born in 1794 and 1799, respectively. A fun, furious correspondence has ensued. There are nine fourth cousins, and they have 16 children, making a total of 25 Boylans that I am now suddenly related to. One of the most astonishing things I’ve learned about them is this: Of the 25 Boylans in these two generations, how many of them are still practicing Catholics?

The answer would be one.

My father left the church when he was 12, after his father died of a heart attack and the only solace the priests at his Catholic school offered was that we’re all here to suffer. We didn’t talk about the faith much when I was a child, but the church hung in the background, like a set of long-lost cousins I’d been told I was connected to but never expected to hear from again.

I wish that Pope Francis would extend his visit to New York by a day, so that he might have the chance to learn firsthand about that struggle for dignity so many former and fallen Catholics experience. He might, for instance, meet with some of the members of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He might visit the Ali Forney Center, which shelters homeless L.G.B.T. youth. He might spend an evening at another organization called The Center, which ministers to those in our population trying to recover from alcohol and drug addiction, afflictions that affect us in disproportionately high numbers, frequently as a result of being turned away by those we love — our families, our communities and our churches.

The author Mary Karr has said that one of the things that brought her to Catholicism, after a lifetime struggle with addiction, was a sign on a church that read, “Sinners Welcome,” even if, as she observed, “I thought I had a better shot at becoming a pole dancer at 40, right, than of making it in the Catholic Church.”

And yet for too many of us, the church has been more focused on the sinners than the welcome. Francis’ words over the last year have given many Catholics, current and lapsed, reason for hope. But we are still waiting to see those hopes turned into action.

The image of that boomerang disappearing above the sea has stayed with me all these years, and there are times I imagine, even now, the thing appearing out of nowhere, clocking me on the head after its long, mysterious journey. It suggests the way faith can come back to us, over the course of a long life, at moments we least expect. The church is a boomerang, too. Maybe, with hope and grace, it can return to its faithful.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author, most recently, of Stuck in the Middle With You: Parenthood in Three Genders.

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