Deal W. Hudson
May 5, 2008
One out of every ten Americans is a lapsed Catholic, according to the Pew Forum’s recently released “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.” Though the Pew statistics could be disputed, the survey confirmed what any observer of the Church knows: Many cradle Catholics leave the Church never to return.
In response to the Pew survey, Inside Catholic sponsored a symposium with over 30 Catholic leaders discussing the question, “Why Are They Leaving?” One reason is obvious – a lack of concern for evangelism, reaching out to those who have either stopped attending church or never did in the first place.
Those of us who converted to Catholicism from an Evangelical background are always struck by what seems an almost total lack of interest among cradle Catholics in sharing their faith.
There are notable exceptions, most of whom are connected to EWTN in one way or another: Scott Hahn, Jeff Cavins, Pat Madrid, Marcus Grodi, Rev. Michael Scanlon, and Matthew Kelly, to name a few examples. The contribution of Mother Angelica to restoring our Church has only begun to be recognized, as is evidenced by Raymond Arroyo’s masterful biography. In addition, Rev. Joseph Fessio, S.J., and Tom Monaghan will one day, along with Mother Angelica, be seen as the prophetic trailblazers they were.
But I think they would all agree that their efforts amount to plugging the leaks with their fingers, so immense is the problem of Catholics leaving the Church.
However, an exciting new apostolate may help change that. A short time ago, Tom Peterson launched CatholicsComeHome.org, and it promises to lead the effort in restoring evangelism in the Church. Peterson is a man who understands the power of media, with 25 years of experience in advertising. In 1998 while living in Phoenix, he created VirtueMedia, which has aired pro-life radio and television commercials on over a thousand stations nationwide.
His experience with VirtueMedia led him to create a unique organization – Catholics Come Home – and a Web site to connect with those interested in exploring the Catholic Faith. The site starts with an interactive host who takes the viewer on a tour that includes powerful collections of videos called “Real People, Real Stories.”
Peterson told me his site had over 100,000 unique visitors last month, in part due to the fact that he was savvy enough to advertise at the papal Mass at Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C. He has already aired commercials announcing the site in Phoenix and Lexington, Kentucky, but thinks most of the traffic is a result of the wide dispersion of person-to-person e-mails.
Now located north of Atlanta, Peterson got the idea for both of his apostolates after experiencing a “reversion” on a men’s retreat twelve years ago. “Afterward, I had two dreams. In one I was saving babies, and in the other, I was making a Catholic film.” The first dream led to the creation of VirtueMedia, the other to a film for the Phoenix diocese issuing an invitation to a Catholics Come Home rally that brought 3,000 attendees.
But the bishop in Phoenix didn’t want to continue the effort, so Petersen had to put his plans on hold until five years ago when he started developing the materials for the Web site.
What Peterson has created goes far beyond the average Web site. Catholics Come Home is a comprehensive evangelism program for dioceses and archdioceses. It begins with airing commercials in the local area, leading interested people to contact a particular parish or diocese.
He is already receiving invitations to various dioceses who want to use his program. “Within a year I plan to go national, airing commercials on the major U.S. networks and in major markets like the Super Bowl. This is something no Catholic organization has done to this level.”
Before airing his commercials, Peterson asks bishops and archbishops to train workers “to be welcoming” toward those who contact them. “The key is to have a loving person on the other end of the phone when they call. You only get one chance in a situation like this, so we have to get it right.”
The dioceses will need a “collaborative spirit” to implement the program locally in order to work with those who want to return to the Church or become a Catholic. In the Diocese of Phoenix, for example, receptionists have been trained to take calls in response to Peterson’s commercials.
“Parishes and dioceses have to have the right spirit” or the program won’t work, he explained to me. Peterson tells the story of a woman who had been away from the Church for 30 years who called the local parish only to be told, “Everyone’s in a meeting now, can you call back tomorrow?”
“Catholics have gotten out of the habit of evangelizing,” Peterson says. “Three out of four Catholics have never tried to win a person to Christ.” This number strikes me as optimistic, but if Peterson’s effort is successful – and I have every reason to think it will be – Catholics around the country will be finding themselves talking about their faith to others, perhaps for the very first time.
Catholics Come Home looks to be the most promising new apostolic effort since Mother Angelica started EWTN or Father Fessio created the St. Ignatius Press – and hopefully the fruits of Peterson’s efforts will find their way to your diocese.