Catholics testify on the air; local faces urge a return to the Church

It’s not every day that television airwaves are used to share the Catholic faith. It’s even more rare for such a message to feature local people and sites.

But, thanks to a new and innovative ad campaign, that’s exactly what will happen during the next three weeks leading up to Easter Sunday.

The “Catholics Come Home” media campaign will air nearly 1,000 commercials on cable and local stations featuring local churchgoers and religious leaders. The ads show viewers the hallmarks of the faith and entice them to return to or join the Church.

“The commercials help remind our world that the Church and its history are integral to our civilization,” said Fr. John Bonavitacola, who is surrounded by busloads of local youth in the closing shot of one of the TV spots. The candlelit crowd is gathered around an altar for Mass at dusk at South Mountain.

“Rather than being a force for ill, the Church has been and is a force for good. It does not hold back the progress of history, but rather has helped move it forward,” the Our Lady of Mount Carmel pastor said.

The ads also draw on the testimony of local Catholics, like Frank Yanez, who share how they drifted away from the Church and the joys they found when they returned.

Search for meaning

“They had it set up just like a movie studio,” Yanez said about the filming this summer at Holy Cross Parish in Mesa.

Yanez, a parishioner at St. Henry in Buckeye, said the experience gave him a true appreciation for the work of video producers. He found himself answering questions like “Why did you leave the Church?” several times so producers could get the take just right.

“It wasn’t like I quit going,” Yanez said. “I was still going to Mass. I was sitting there watching my watch saying, ‘Come on, Father. Hurry up.’”

Mass was no longer meaningful, only habitual, he said.

“I didn’t even have a heart for it. It was an empty act,” Yanez said. That was largely because he carried a sin with him for at least 10 years that he thought God wouldn’t forgive. Yanez describes his feeling of forgiveness in the commercial.

Going to church was also habitual for Dee Tamminen. Attending Mass was more out of what she called “that Catholic obligation” than true desire.

“I might have found a church at Christmas time and gradually quit going,” she said in the commercial.

She was mad at God after losing her dad at a young age. Years later, God let her see her dad in a dream, she said. That helped Tamminen get rid of her anger and through the outreach of her husband — who wasn’t even Catholic at the time — and their local priest, she returned to the Church.

Now that she’s back, Tamminen said she doesn’t feel like she ever left.

Tamminen, director and teacher at St. Anne Little Flower Montessori School in Gilbert, said the camera crew treated her like a star during the filming, ensuring her hair and makeup were perfect.

But it wasn’t just those being interviewed for the testimonials who received star treatment. Religious leaders, parishioners and students who were filmed on location did too.

“I kept sweating and making the makeup people work hard,” Fr. Bonavitacola said. The outdoor Mass he offers in the commercial took several hours to film.

It took the whole day to film the classroom scene at St. Agnes School last fall. Several students and someone the children called their “substitute teacher” — who was really an actor — appear in the commercial for a few seconds.

“The children were great. They were exhausted,” their real teacher, Sylvia Avery, said about her first- and second-graders.

She said the experience helped the students begin to realize that being Catholic means something.

“That identity was very special to them,” Avery said.

That’s what the “Catholics Come Home” campaign is all about: making people feel proud to be Catholic while reaching out to those who have left the Church or have never been a part of it.

“What’s neat is that we get to use modern technology and the power of the media,” Fr. Bonavitacola said of spreading the Gospel.

He just hopes parishioners are welcoming and parishes have programs and processes ready to transition them back when viewers respond to the media campaign by returning to the Church. His parishioners are ready to continue their tradition of welcoming new and returning members.

“We deliver homemade bread to their homes as a way of telling them we are glad they are back,” Fr. Bonavitacola said about his returning parishioners. “I hope to be baking a lot of bread this year.”