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September 27, 2009

Former Catholics invited to come home

By Michelle Martin


It’s not about the commercials, and it’s not even really about getting more people in the pews.

It’s about salvation.

“I think that evangelization is the church’s number one job, and it should be the top priority of every parish in everything we do,” said Father Paul Seaman, pastor of St. Pascal Parish, 3935 N. Melvina Ave. “I think a media campaign is an opportunity to give us the shot in the arm that we need.”

That campaign is Catholics Come Home, a $1.3 million effort that will be undertaken by the Archdiocese of Chicago and the dioceses of Rockford and Joliet, with television spots to air on major broadcast networks, as well as prominent Spanish- and Polishlanguage stations.

Those commercials are just the first part of the process, said Father Richard Hynes, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Catechesis, Evangelization and Worship. The commercials, which will air some 2,000 times, are only the invitation to the roughly four out of five people who identify themselves as Catholic but do not attend Mass regularly, he said.

Follow up phases

To follow up, all parishes in the three dioceses will be asked to help by having a “welcome table” near the entrance to their churches, staffed by parishioners with materials designed to answer questions that people who walked away from the Catholic Church might have about coming back. Those materials should be available in time for parish training sessions at the archdiocesan Festival of Faith Oct. 16-17, said Nancy Polacek, the archdiocese’s coordinator for Catholics Come Home.

Each parish also has been asked to designate a “point person,” usually a deacon, to coordinate welcome efforts.

“It’s not just the commercials, it’s what’s happening within the parish,” said Polacek.

Within the archdiocese, there are efforts under way to identify people who can offer assistance to former Catholics who have questions about how to return to the church following an abortion, or following a divorce. Other expected questions include the availability of confirmation for adults, she said.

For example, the archdiocesan tribunal, which handles annulment cases, will have 120 field advocates available to answer questions, Polacek said.

The most important part of the project follows the welcome, Hynes said. That’s accompanying people as they deepen their life in Christ, return to the sacraments and reintegrate into the life of the parish.

Father Edward Upton, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Orland Park, said he thinks the campaign could provide the nudge people need to return to church.

“Everyone is aware that the percentage of people coming to Mass and the number of active Catholics has been in decline for a number of years,” Upton said. “For some people, it’s a real serious problem with church teaching or a negative church experience. But for many of them, they’ve just gotten out of the habit of regular Sunday worship.”


The commercials that will air include a number of testimonials from Catholics who have made the journey, as well as two longer spots, one describing the work of the Catholic Church around the world and the other focusing on the role of God’s mercy and salvation in individual lives. They were aired at Nationals Stadium in Washington, D.C. during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit in April 2008 and received a warm reception. The dioceses of Phoenix and Corpus Christi, Texas, ran the campaign later that year and reported an increase in Mass attendance and participation in adult formation programs.

Whether people who return become active parishioners or drift away again depends on them as well as on the parish’s follow-up, Upton said.

“I think the church has to be friendly and welcoming, and the liturgy will hopefully touch their spirit, but in the end, it’s their decision whether to stay,” Upton said. “One of the challenges is that the church is kind of looked on with a consumer mentality – they are the customer, we are a service provider. But in that image, the customer doesn’t have a lot of responsibility. In the church, the members need to work together to build the Kingdom of God.”

News of the campaign hit the Chicago media in early September, with some questions raised about whether it is appropriate for the church to spend money on advertising rather than ministering to people. The Chicago archdiocese’s $850,000 contribution is being paid for with donations dedicated for that purpose, not from general Sunday collections.

For Seaman, that question doesn’t make sense, because inviting people to life in God is ministry in its most basic sense.

“One of the most well-known companies in the world today is McDonald’s, and they are constantly advertising,” he said. “The media is very important in the world today, and we would be foolish not to take advantage of it.”

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