Catholics coming home: Major media campaign yields success

Television is often seen as having a negative influence on viewers, but it recently had a positive impact on the lives of local Catholics.

Roughly 6,000 people from Phoenix and northern Arizona responded to the nearly 1,000 Catholics Come Home television spots that aired on local and cable networks throughout the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday.

The series of television spots showed the Church’s rich history, the real testimonies of why Catholics fell away and returned to the faith, and how Catholics continue to contribute to the good of society.

“The results are incredible,” said Tom Peterson, president and founder of Catholics Come Home, a new lay apostolate behind the media campaign. “God has graced us with a means to help thousands find their way home to the Catholic faith.”

Nearly 3.5 million viewers in the diocese — which was a test market for the campaign — saw the ads a dozen or more times. Current Catholics, fallen-away Catholics and non-Catholics responded by logging on to the campaign’s Web site, www.catholicscomehome.org.

“Each one makes us leap for joy,” Peterson said.

Word about the campaign and the site quickly spread through e-mails and Catholic blogs, which brought 54,000 visitors from 70 countries to the Web site.

Though the television campaign concluded in March, the Web site is now a permanent feature that offers an overview of the faith and addresses marriage issues, grieving and reconciliation. Roughly 7,800 Web visitors said they were former Catholics.

More than 5,500 searched information regarding marriage issues — one reason many fell away from the Church. Some 5,000 looked up Mass times.

Although these statistics give a general impression of the campaign’s results, Ryan Hanning, the coordinator of adult evangelization for the diocese who worked closely on the campaign, said most Catholics who have returned are under the radar.

A Flagstaff woman may be one of them. Therese Fronske, a San Francisco de Asís parishioner, encountered a returning Catholic during her rounds as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist at the Flagstaff Medical Center on Easter Sunday. She stopped to pray for a moment before visiting the next patient.

“At the same moment, an employee came down the corridor and joyfully greeted me saying, ‘Catholics come home — I have come home,’” Fronske said. The employee described her experience and asked to receive Communion.

“It was a very rare and beautiful encounter,” Fronske said. “I’m sure the commercial will have a similar effect on many others who have left the Church. They want to come home, but need the reassurance that they are welcome.”

Hanning said engaging in dialogue with those who have fallen away is the first step in bringing them back. He and other Church leaders responded to questions and testimony from 600 people during the campaign.

“It is difficult to know the direct impact of the commercials and how far-reaching the impact will be for the countless seeds that were planted in the hearts and minds of the millions who saw the ads,” Hanning said.

In a diocesan-wide survey, 27 percent of pastors, deacons and catechetical leaders felt Mass attendance — which usually experiences a bump at Easter time — was above normal.

Fr. Loren Gonzales, pastor at St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Peoria, saw more new faces at Mass, but couldn’t directly tell how much was attributable to the media campaign versus the parish’s other outreach efforts.

Both Fr. Gonzales and Fr. John Coleman, pastor at St. Andrew the Apostle in Chandler, noticed an increase in confessions.

“Several people have come to confession that were away from the Church for 10 or more years — more than usual we think,” Fr. Coleman said.

Angie wrote in to the Web site said she was away from the Church for 35 years and an agnostic for 20 years, but the Catholics Come Home campaign moved her to look up Mass times online.

“I thought it was very forward thinking in the fact that the Catholic Church was willing to place an actual ad that was not preaching anything, not selling anything… just offering a way back for those who might want to think again or look into the Catholic faith.”

Peterson said 33 percent of Web inquiries were from those considering entering the Church. He said he never expected the campaign to help someone say, “Hey, I’m thinking of becoming Catholic. How do I do that?”

Whether the new faces at church are appearing for the first time or returning after years of absence, parish leaders want to help them heal and ensure they keep coming back.

Many parishes already have programs set up for returning Catholics, with 35 percent holding special events this Easter season.

A Phoenix advisory team will look more closely at the campaign’s results April 23-24 to create a national blueprint.

“What greater good is there than to bring a soul to Christ?” Peterson said. “It’s just going to snowball to the rest of the country and the world.”

Catherine E. Hanley in Flagstaff contributed to this story.