WASHINGTON (CNS) — One hot August night in 2005, Melanie Rigney found solace standing awkwardly in the cool vestibule of St. Charles Borromeo Church, the first church she had entered during the 20 years that saw her married, divorced, bankrupt and uprooted from her hometown in Nebraska to Washington.

Feeling conspicuous and uncertain, she was saved by a small ad in the bulletin for something called Landings, a ministry that claimed to welcome returning Catholics back into the church.

“I thought, ‘What the heck,'” Rigney said. “‘I can go, and if I don’t like it, I don’t have to go back. Whatever.”‘

By 2006, Rigney worked on the church’s council and ran Landings at her parish.

Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Landings is a Paulist program that meets returning Catholics with love and guides them back into the pews. Landings focuses specifically on small group mentorship and storytelling, and has saved over a million Catholics like Rigney across the United States, Canada, Europe and Southeast Asia. The program targets those who were raised with some education in the faith and received some or all of the sacraments, but lost their spiritual riches somewhere along the way.

“I was pretty much hooked after the first week,” Rigney told Catholic News Service. “I found out that most of the problems I had with church didn’t exist. I had misunderstood church teachings. Then came the joy spot; Christmas Day in 2005 was the first time I had the Eucharist 33 years, and the first time in my life I had been to Mass on Christmas Day.”

Landings prioritizes compassionate listening, conversation and community. Returnees spend two hours a week for six to eight weeks at small group meetings with two or three facilitators — who are usually returned Catholics themselves. The beginning of the program, in particular, focuses on conversation. Facilitators share their faith journeys and encourage all of the returnees to do so as well.

Anna LaNave, a Landings minister at Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac, Maryland, said that the program’s emphasis on small group sharing is effective because it allows the faith to become interactive and challenging.

“Our team starts off and tells their stories, and it is so interesting to see how God is calling someone so it encourages (returnees) to tell their stories too,” LaNave told CNS. “I think that is the most powerful part of Landings. It makes people realize they are not alone in their time away from the church, and their time away and asking questions is OK because our faith is a thinking faith.”

The ministry’s target audience includes the two-thirds of Catholics who still identify as Catholic but do not attend Mass regularly. According to Landings research, most Catholics who fall away from the church are not motivated by anger or dislike, but by boredom, busyness or ambivalence. Most don’t think that they need to attend Mass to be a “good Catholic.”

Landings aims to be a “ministry of compassionate listening” that “loves people back to the church,” as the organization explains in its training video. Thus, sessions focus less on dogmatic and doctrinal catechism and more on exploring and establishing a personal relationship with God and a deep communion with fellow Catholics. After the initial sharing phase, returnees reflect on themes like who is God, what is the Holy Spirit, sin and reconciliation, baptism and confirmation, etc.

For Tony See, a cradle Catholic from Singapore who lost elements of his faith to the busyness of life, Landings was a critical part of his journey home. First he went through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, or RCIA, which he said helped him, but then, he discovered Landings.

As a reborn Catholic, he wanted to become involved in the organization as a leader, so he participated in meetings himself to understand how the program worked. He discovered that his faith journey was still very much a work in progress.

“For me, it made God real and personal,” See said. “The first 40 years of my life, the faith actually belonged to my parents, but after this personal experience with God the faith actually become mine.”

See has now been working as a Landings minister in Thailand for 11 years.

He explained that to him, Landings seemed more productive than RCIA for returning Catholics because of its small group structure. Team members create a loving and trusting community that provides accompaniment on each returnee’s spiritual journey that transcends the lectures and classroom setting often found in RCIA.

“In Landings, we were invited to go even deeper, which meant we have to embrace vulnerability and humility. When you’re humble and vulnerable you are able to share something very deep. Things that are deep you hide because you are embarrassed or ashamed,” See said. “We go to these areas that hurt us a lot, encountering them we find healing and are able to let go of bitterness and begin the process of forgiveness.”

See emphasized that Landings is a different kind of ministry for a different kind of era, one that he found effective in a modernizing world.

“In this age, we really need to look for newer methods to proclaim the one constant message of God’s life,” See said. “(Landings) addresses the people who belong to the church but are out of it because they want to come back but are emotionally or spiritually weak to come back on their own. So we need to go out there and reach them and bring them home.”