No one gasped when Judy Payne told a parish group she hadn't attended Mass regularly in 25 years. They didn't raise their eyebrows when she admitted she had married outside the Catholic Church.

The pastoral sensitivity of the "Inviting Catholics Home" group at Our Lady of Grace parish in Ballston Lake and the parish's welcoming environment convinced Ms. Payne to become a parishioner. She even agreed to share her story at future sessions of the program.

Videos on changes to the Church after the 1960s' Second Vatican Council made Ms. Payne and other returning Catholics "realize [that] a lot has changed," she explained. "It's not so strict and rigid." Becoming an active Catholic again "felt right."

That decision followed decades of church-shopping, misinterpreting dogma and feeling shunned by people in the pews.

Despite believing that her Catholic school education in the Schenectady area had instilled values, Ms. Payne fell away from the Church as a teenager because she could no longer relate to a lot of the rules - she remembers inventing sins during mandated monthly confessions - and because God was depicted as punitive.

"I couldn't reconcile that with what I felt about God," she told The Evangelist. "I'm kind of a pragmatic person. Things need to be logical."

She started a nursing degree at SUNY Plattsburgh in 1973, only attending Mass on school breaks. As a young adult, she worked as a nurse, then as manager of a health information service. She moved to Syracuse and met her husband, Sam, a divorced Lutheran with children.

Pursuing an annulment didn't sit right with the couple, and they felt the Catholic Church ostracized divorcees: "I wasn't feeling like the Church was very approachable," Ms. Payne said.

Still, the Paynes occasionally attended a Catholic church where they found a priest who delivered relatable homilies, and Ms. Payne leaned on her faith whenever she was faced with struggles.

One such struggle hit in 2007, after the Paynes returned to the Capital Region from 16 years in Minnesota: Ms. Payne's father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

"It's just extremely hard for me to understand," Ms. Payne said of the diagnosis, compounded when her mother needed surgery. "I knew I needed something much bigger than me to deal with this - and much bigger than any other human being on earth."

It was simply the right time in her life, she said, when she spotted Our Lady of Grace's red signs advertising the Inviting Catholics Home program in 2010.

After doing some research, she enrolled in the six-week program. Volunteers and parish life director Dorothy Sokol proved approachable and comforting. Ms. Payne learned about sacraments and parts of the Mass and began debunking the "Catholic guilt" myth.

"We all experienced the same thing: [that the Church has] just loosened up," Ms. Payne said of her fellow participants, all of whom were close in age.

She said she's always felt "OK in God's eyes," and the parish validated it: "I've been a good person all my life, and I'm getting better and better.

"I just wanted to put down some roots," added Ms. Payne, who now telecommutes to a web-related job for the Mayo Clinic. "I thank God for letting me get there."