Deacon Jim McVeigh is as close as you can get to being a priest without actually donning the robe. He can perform baptisms, funerals, even weddings. The only difference is that he has not taken a vow of celibacy and he can't say mass or hear confessions.

But McVeigh, who has served as a deacon at Our Lady of the Mountain Catholic Church since 2005, never imagined he would join the clergy. In fact, he took breaks from church altogether twice in his life, for 10-year stretches at a time.

The second time he returned to mass, he joined St. Anne's parish in Grants Pass, and began leading a Welcome Home Catholics program. Now he has started the same program at Our Lady of the Mountain in Ashland. Between 35 and 40 people returned to the church in Grants Pass, and McVeigh hopes to repeat that success here.

"We keep it real informal," he said. "People are a little hesitant, so we don't want to get up there and start beating on them."

The nine-week program, facilitated by once-estranged Catholics like McVeigh, allows non-practicing Catholics the chance to share with each other why they left the church and work through any remaining issues.

Topics they cover include the church's teachings about sexuality and doubt, good and bad memories of church and a review of the sacraments and saints.

"It's a way in which they can revisit their questions without being forced or prodded or shamed," said Father Sean Weeks, the parish priest at Our Lady of the Mountain.

Participants' reasons for leaving the church range from disagreement over doctrine to marrying a non-Catholic to bad memories of their childhood faith, Weeks said. Others, like McVeigh, simply stop going because life gets in the way. One elderly woman told McVeigh she left because she was tired of hearing about her priest's vacations during mass.

Although younger members may appreciate recent changes in the church, such as more participatory masses in English instead of Latin, older members may mourn their old traditions, Weeks said.

"They lost something, and they've been grieving it," Weeks said.

James Maloney, who helped lead the Welcome Home program in Grants Pass, is one Catholic who returned to a church that was vastly different than the one he remembered from childhood.

"When I was a kid and a teenager and even a young adult, going to confession was a pretty scary thing," he said. "Back then, it was more about punishment than anything else. Now it's about forgiveness and changing."

Maloney rejoined the church in 1985, long before the Welcome Home program was created. Now, the first step in coming back is less intimidating than ever, and once people do come back, they tend to be very involved, he said.

"I think sometimes they're the best Catholics of all," he said. "They've been away and they appreciate what they have back again."

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