Maybe TV isn’t so bad after all.
An estimated 92,000 inactive Catholics have come back to the Church in the last year thanks in large part to the groundbreaking Catholics Come Home television advertising campaign.
The promotional spots featured people and locations from around the Phoenix Diocese to promote the Church during prime time television. The cornerstone of the campaign, the Catholics Come Home Web site, addresses often misunderstood aspects of the faith.
“For those who had fallen away from the practice of their faith, it let them know that we want them to come home,” Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said.
The commercials, which ran this time last year, detail the good works of the Catholic Church throughout history. They also offer real-life testimonials of local fallen away Catholics explaining what turned them away and what drew them back.
“Phoenix was supposed to be this quiet little test,” said former Phoenician Tom Peterson, president and founder of Catholics Come Home based in Georgia. “Word went worldwide as soon as you launched.”
More than half a million different visitors from all 50 states and 80 countries have visited the catholicscomehome.com Web site since the spots first aired.
The response was so positive that other dioceses around the country are looking to Phoenix for ideas on bringing Catholics back to the Church.
The Diocese of Corpus Christi in Texas recently launched different versions of the television spots in English and Spanish. Each parish supplemented the commercials with a brochure for everyone at Ash Wednesday services, answering common faith-related questions and listing Mass times and ministries.
The Catholics Come Home spots will appear in more than a dozen other dioceses around the country later this year and early next. By the time the season of Advent rolls around in 2010, organizers say they’ll go national on major networks.
“Our family is made up of every race,” begins the longest of the spots. “We are young and old, rich and poor, men and women, sinners and saints.”
The two-minute ad highlights the vital part the Catholic Church has played in establishing hospitals, orphanages and schools in addition to its role in science, marriage, family life, sacred Scripture and sacraments.
“If you’ve been away from the Catholic Church, we invite you to take another look,” the announcer says toward the end. “We are Catholic, welcome home.”
Another two-minute ad shows men and women alone watching the best and the worst scenes from their lives play back before them on an old movie reel.
“When our transition into eternity begins, there won’t be a chance for any do-overs,” the narrator says. She continues to say that Catholics can still ask God to help create the ideal ending for their life story so that He might say to them, “well done, my good and faithful servant.”
The final ad that aired — Peterson has dozens more like it ready to go — featured snippets of testimonials why Catholics left the Church and what they found upon their return.
Peterson met with Vatican officials last June to discuss broadening the campaign, which played prominently during last summer’s World Youth Day event in Sydney, Australia.
Peterson — who received the 2009 Evangelization award from Legatus, an international organization for Catholic business leaders — said the Catholics Come Home campaign has “the potential of re-Christianizing our society and even catechizing the world.”
A lot of pro bono production, nearly $1 million from various donors and foundations, and a grant from the Catholic Community Foundation helped put the ads on the air.
The Diocese of Phoenix has witnessed increased interest in the Church, which leaders are attributing to last year’s campaign.
“It’s exciting to see the fruits that continue to grow from this,” said Ryan Hanning, coordinator of adult evangelization for the diocese. According to Hanning, a number of the faithful have found a renewed passion for the Church, while fallen-away Catholics rejoined parish life.
Hanning worked closely with Peterson on the Catholics Come Home campaign and ensured that parish leaders, especially those in faith formation, were ready to welcome back Catholics and resolve sacramental and doctrinal issues. More than 25 parishes created programs to welcome Catholics back to the Church.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Tempe was one of them. It showed a video before Easter Masses and held a six-week program for returning Catholics.
The meetings provided an opportunity for parish leaders to answer their questions and help them brush up on their understanding of the Church, while other parish ministries offered hospitality. More than 20 people joined those meetings with others returning straight to the pews, according to Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
Hanning said Mass numbers have been up across the diocese for the last six months and stories continue to trickle in of individuals and families that returned to the Church, prompted by the Catholics Come Home effort.
“The commercials helped [fallen-away Catholics] realize that they were missing something in their lives,” said Fr. John Bonavitacola, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. He noticed that Catholics who had grown lax in their faith or who felt hurt by the Church, or who divorced and remarried, returned. Many had their marriage validated in the Church while others joined for the first time.
As an extension of the campaign, a small team of parishioners from St. Anne Parish in Gilbert is going door to door throughout the neighborhood, distributing pamphlets with Mass times and other information. They also take prayer intentions.
“Hardly anybody could refuse that, even if you’re not Catholic,” said Auroa Sarmiento, coordinator of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at St. Anne’s.
Sarmiento said the number of people coming to the parish seeking information about the faith has doubled in the past year, thanks to the campaign. She still gets at least one call a week from a Catholic wanting to return to the Church.
Many priests, answering a survey last year, said more Catholics sought confession because of the Catholics Come Home campaign.
“The Lord created us with a longing for Him,” the bishop said. “Whoever has lost touch with that longing often finds it reawakened through these commercials.”
Six months after the media campaign ended, a comprehensive analysis of its impact revealed a 22 percent increase in Mass attendance at nine sample parishes. Diocesan wide, the average increased Mass attendance — returned Catholics and new converts — was 12 percent. That’s despite a flat population growth in the diocese during that period.
“Wherever they’ve been, they can come back home. It’s a message that resonates,” Hanning said. “I never thought I’d have thousands of Catholics calling and e-mailing me and saying, ‘I’m proud to be Catholic and I want to help others.’”