Pennsylvania-based apostolate helps mothers and fathers find peace as they try to persevere in prayer for "prodigals."
When a son or daughter of practicing Catholics leaves the Church, it can be a severe blow. Parents are sometimes tempted to wonder, “What did I do wrong? Did I fail as a Catholic mother or father? How could I have done a better job in passing down the faith?”
That was the quandary for Celeste and Michael Behe, after a teenaged son told them that he no longer believed in God.
“I couldn’t help but wonder what Mike and I had done to cause Leo to abandon the Faith,” Celeste Behe said. “We had nowhere to turn for counsel, and no place where we could be supported in our struggle without feeling as though we ourselves were responsible for it.”
Celeste Behe has been a Catholic journalist for many years, while Michael Behe has become known for his writings on intelligent design. They home-schooled their children. But in 2007, at the age of 17, Leo declared on social media that he rejected the faith in which his parents had reared him.
“At the time, our family was an anomaly, especially in our close-knit Catholic homeschooling community,” Celeste said. “While friends could offer sympathy, they couldn’t relate to what Mike and I were experiencing. For parents of prodigal children, there was no real support, no sense of solidarity, to be found.”
Out of confusion
Out of that confusion and isolation was born the St. Monica Ministry, an apostolate that works to provide the kind of understanding and support the Behes lacked when their son (and a second one later on) left the Church. Today, Celeste believes, at a time when irreligion is rising among young people, there is an even greater need for such a ministry.
It’s named, of course, for the mother of St. Augustine, who for years prayed and shed tears for her son’s conversion. There are chapters forming throughout the Behes’ home Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania, and across the United States, as well as in Canada, Malta, and Australia. Chapters come together regularly, drawing as many as 30 people for holy hours, discussion, and camaraderie. They offer prayers that are unique to the St. Monica Ministry: the “Prayer of the St. Monica Ministry to Its Patron” and the “Rosary of Supplication for Our Prodigals,” which contains original meditations written expressly for the ministry.
This Sunday, August 27, the date on which the Feast of St. Monica is normally celebrated, Allentown Bishop Alfred A. Schlert will preside at a holy hour sponsored by the St. Monica Ministry. The holy hour will take place at the Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena, Allentown, beginning at 4 p.m.
Peace in the heart
It was Bishop Schlert who suggested that Celeste Behe “facilitate a gathering” for those who were praying for fallen-away loved ones, after reading a book review in which she mentioned that two of her sons had left the Church.
“As a ‘prayer network,’ the St. Monica Ministry brings together those who are grieving the loss of loved ones from the Church, allowing us to pray and sacrifice for the salvation of one another’s prodigals as well as for our own,” Celeste said. “St. Monica Ministry communities are also united through their veneration of a unique icon of St. Monica, which was created especially for the ministry by a priest of the Allentown Diocese.”
Members appreciate the practical suggestions of how to slowly and gently bring loved ones back to the Church, but equally important is the peace that members attain in the midst of their consternation for the souls of their fallen-away loved ones.
Donna Zwick, a retired teacher, attends St. Monica Ministry holy hours at St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Church in Hellertown, Pennsylvania, along with her husband, Eric. They are praying for their son, who does not attend Mass any longer. “They just don’t see the need to go to church,” Donna said of many in the younger generations.
Although her son and daughter-in-law kept their promise to have all five of their children baptized, Zwick’s grandchildren do not attend church, and the older ones have not received first Communion or Confirmation.
“But like St. Monica, I pray perseveringly,” Zwick said. Of the first holy hour she and her husband attended, earlier this year, she recalled feeling relieved about “looking around and knowing we weren’t the only ones.” The prayer vigil, with its signing of the “Book of Petition and Hope,” lighting of “Candles of Entreaty,” and praying the “Rosary of Supplication for Our Prodigals,” instilled peace within her heart and gave her a confidence that she “just really truly feel I can go on.”
Zwick knows quite a few “grandmas” who are “all in the same boat. We have millennial adult children who are not raising their children in the Catholic faith. But you hear many, many stories about how a grandma’s influence is [effective]. You hear about how [someone] had a grandma who perseveringly prayed for them. So, you know, hope springs eternal.”
Mark Napierkowski, Development Director at Mercy School For Special Learning in Allentown, and his wife, Jennifer, do not have any “prodigal” children. But Mark still wanted to get involved in the St. Monica Ministry.
“We certainly haven’t done a perfect job as parents – far from it. But God has smiled upon us, and we’re grateful,” said Napierkowski, whose son is a seminarian. “There are other people who are not as fortunate, and my motivation was to reach out to those people in prayer and let them know they’re not alone.”
For parents whose children have left the faith, Napierkowski would advise them to be persistent in prayer.
“Be patient, even if you don’t see anything happening, because God is working behind the scenes, doing the heavy lifting, and I think … the evil one … wants us to perceive nothing happening and to become discouraged and to stop and to become bitter. But I think there’s so much efficacy to prayer, especially when it feels dry and nothing’s going on.”
He also would advise parents to be patient with their prodigal children, resisting the temptation to “badger” them about returning to the practice of the faith.
“The word the Pope likes to use, I believe, is accompaniment: Let’s accompany them and let’s show them how happy we are in this Catholic faith life and how deeply we believe in the presence of God in our daily lives, despite that cultural opposition that we encounter so often, so that they can see with their own eyes that that joy is for real.”
Three mothers interceding
Like other parents, Napierkowski recognizes that it’s harder today than when he and his wife were married, 33 years ago, to “raise children with a really healthy, strong sense of their own Catholic faith, living the sacramental life of the Church and being faithful to it. There is just so much opposition in the culture today to people of faith in general, and Catholics in particular. So how do we overcome that? We’ve got to just continue to believe that the grace from the sacraments we receive on a regular basis is real, it is effective and will keep us close to God.”
There wasn’t quite as much opposition to people of faith when Celeste and Mike Behe first had to deal with a “prodigal child.” It was 2007 when their son Leo announced that he was an atheist, and the word “None” had not yet taken on the connotation it has today, when an increasing number of people say they have no religious affiliation.
Celeste hoped that it was only a temporary phase, from which Leo would return to being an even more committed Catholic.
“But with time, Leo grew more vehement in his atheism, and it was two years later … that Leo announced on Reddit that he, ‘the son of Michael Behe, the Catholic biochemist,’ had ‘turned away from my family’s Catholic faith’ and was ‘now an outspoken atheist,’” she recounted. “The post was a sensation in the Reddit community, and it even caught the interest of Mike’s colleagues, especially those for whom Mike’s Catholic faith was already an issue.”
Celeste confided that she took consolation in the fact that Leo had posted his announcement on October 7, the feast of the Holy Rosary. “Somehow, I saw that as a sign that Our Lady was watching, and that she would take matters into her hands when the time was right,” she said.
Have years of prayers made a difference? Celeste didn’t have an Augustinian conversion story to share, but she does find hope in small signs.
“Leo is always looking for something to fill the hole that only God can fill,” she said. “It’s obvious that he has the ‘restless heart’ that Augustine experienced before his conversion. At one point Leo, wanting to do something good for others, decided that he would contribute his talents to LibriVox, an organization that provides free audio recordings of materials that are in the public domain.” The recordings are made by volunteers.
Perhaps providentially, when Leo was ready to record a reading, LibriVox gave him a list of materials from which to choose. As it turned out, the list Leo was given consisted of nothing but papal encyclicals.
“Despite his distaste for the subject matter, Leo had to make a selection from the list,” Celeste said. “It was, after all, his first assignment from LibriVox, and he couldn’t very well refuse it.”
He chose the encyclical Laetitiae Sanctae (Commending Devotion to the Rosary), written by Pope Leo XIII.
“I can’t help but interpret this incredible coincidence as a sign that Our Lady is interceding for Leo,” said Celeste. “And when Our Lady intercedes – accompanied by another devoted mother, St. Monica – Our Lord’s merciful Heart is bound to be moved.”
Interested parents can reach the St. Monica Ministry for more information, including the St. Monica Ministry Manual for Parishes, at StMonicaMinistry27@gmail.com.