John Hergenroeder knows the pain of a parent whose child has turned away from the Church.
His emotions catch in his throat and his eyes fill with tears as he speaks to it.
“My son left the faith, and it’s been a difficult journey. I’ve prayed for him to return for so long,” he said.
Hergenroeder has turned to his Catholic faith, his parish and the workings of the Holy Spirit to transform that pain into hope, not only for himself and his son, but for others enduring the same experience.
With the blessing of his pastor, Father Donald Bender, Hergenroeder coordinates the St. Monica Ministry at St. Patrick Parish in Carlisle, a weekly prayer service to pray for loved ones to return to the Catholic Church.
The ministry is named for St. Monica, once the mournful mother of a prodigal son, Augustine, who, through his mother’s prayers and God’s grace, returned to the Church and became one of Her great saints.
“St. Augustine had a wayward youth and left the Church. St. Monica prayed for his return to the Church for 17 years and, through all that time, she persevered and was steady. She obviously knows what it takes to bring our loved ones back to the Church,” Hergenroeder said. “She can intercede for us and our intentions, and present our needs and desires for our loved ones to return to God in a more perfect way.”
The ministry began at St. Patrick Parish in October of 2021 after Hergenroeder said he “felt a special call” to the ministry. His daughter, a pastoral assistant in North Dakota, had told him about a similar group in her parish and he thought it might be worth implementing at St. Patrick’s.
The prayer ministry is held every Wednesday night at St. Patrick Church on Marsh Drive at 8 p.m. It’s a short service of prayer, with Hergenroeder leading attendees in the Litany of St. Monica, the Memorare and the Divine Mercy Chaplet, among others. When the service concludes by 8:20 p.m., participants are invited to stay in the church and pray for some additional time.
The set-up is simple yet meaningful: a lighted candle is placed on the altar next to a basket of names (anonymously folded on pieces of paper) to be prayed for.
The weekly program is also streamed live on the parish’s YouTube channel; the camera is positioned to focus only on the altar and the lectern to ensure the privacy of those in the pews.
“It is an incredible thing and something that is so relevant,” Father Bender said of the ministry. “It is something that so many people bring up in conversation and now we have an outlet for them to pray about it together with others going through the same thing. Prayer is powerful! The stronger our prayer life, the stronger our relationship with Christ and we can defeat the attacks of the devil.”
“From the very beginning of this ministry, I felt a special call by the Holy Spirit to make it anonymous,” Hergenroeder said. “Not everybody wants to share their story or their pain. I felt the call to have a place for people to come as they needed to, as often as they needed to.”
There’s no formal discussion, group sharing or arranged fellowship – just a 20-minute period of prayer and a place to find hope and support.
The ministry is not limited to parents of children who have fallen away form the Church. It is open to anyone who wishes to pray for family members and friends, regardless of their parish affiliation.
In the 15 months of the ministry’s existence, more than a handful of people have told Hergenroeder that their prayers have been answered – including the return of an entire family to the Catholic Church.
The power of prayer is evident. One participant, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Witness at the January 4 prayer service: “I’ve been here since the first meeting and I’ve had two family members come back to the faith, as soon as two months after the prayer group began here. It’s an awesome ministry and I’m so glad we have it here. I encourage others to come and pray, and join us praying for others to return to the Church.”
Another participant, the mother of three adult children, shared the story her son’s return to the Church that can only be by the grace of God.
Wishing to remain anonymous, she said she and her husband had been devoutly praying for their son to come back to the faith after he fell away during college. The young man married, joined his wife at a Pentecostal church in Texas, and moved from Austin to Dallas for a job offer. In Dallas, their new home was two blocks from a Catholic church.
Not long after his parents began attending the St. Monica Ministry at St. Patrick’s, the son called to say that he felt drawn to visit the church near his home, and invited his wife to join him. “We’d been here at St. Pat’s praying for him for months, and he said he felt so good when he visited that church,” his mother said.
“Then one day, he called us and he was crying,” she continued. “He said, ‘I have to tell you something. God called me back. I’ve decided that I’m going to Mass here on Sunday, and I can’t wait!’”
The name of that Church? St. Monica.
“That’s God at work,” his mother said. “For him to come back to the faith at St. Monica Church is nothing short of a miracle. This was a huge answer to our prayers.”
“It’s a very painful feeling when your child leaves the Church. For parents who are devout in the faith and alive in the Spirit, to know that your child is so far from experiencing that fire, it’s incredibly painful,” she said. “When you talk to another parent feeling this same hurt, you just cry because you share the same heart in wondering how we lost them, or what we did wrong. But I want to tell others going through this to not lose hope. Continue to pray. Invite them to Mass. Be there for them, and answer any questions they might have. Keep praying for them, walk with them, and do it all with love.”
Such stories of hope and God’s grace are what keep Hergenroeder convinced that the ministry is a fruitful one and to continue on with it.
“It contributes to the knowledge that God has a plan, and that we are participants in it,” he said. “Hearing the success of others coming back strengthens my hope and my joy that through God, being the merciful God that He is, eventually my son will come back.”
The weekly prayer program can be downloaded at this link. The livestream of the St. Monica Ministry is available on the parish’s YouTube channel every Wednesday at 8 p.m. For more information, contact John Hergenroeder at email@example.com.
(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness