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December 6, 2009

Church takes page from apostles with initiative Media watchers say using tv ads to invite Catholics back a good idea

By Michelle Martin


When television commercials urging Catholics who no longer practice their faith to “come home” to the church begin to air on Dec. 16, Catholic media watchers will be ready to stand up and cheer.

The church, going back to the days of the apostles, has a tradition of using every available method to spread the Good News, said Sheila Liaugminas, a Catholic print and broadcast journalist and blogger.

“If St. Paul were here today, he would be using every available form of media,” said Liaugminas, who is based in Chicago. “He would be using television, he would be on the radio, he would be blogging, he would probably be on Twitter.”

The television ad campaign, which will include the airing of commercials about 2,000 times on major broadcast and cable networks between Dec. 16 and Jan. 24, is a joint effort of the Archdiocese of Chicago and the dioceses of Rockford and Joliet. The ads are part of a larger initiative aimed at people who were once Catholic, although other dioceses that have used it reported an increase both in returning Catholics and in people newly interested in the faith.

The Diocese of Phoenix reported that 92,000 people returned to Mass there after the commercials ran during Lent in 2008. In the Diocese of Corpus Christi, parishes saw about a 40 percent increase in attendance at Easter Masses after running the commercials during Lent.

The initiative will run starting in Advent 2009 or Lent 2010 in several U.S. cities besides Chicago, including Atlanta; Sacramento, Calif.; Omaha and Lincoln, Neb.: Charlotte, N.C.: Providence, R.I. and Green Bay, Wis.

Tuned in, plugged in

People seeing the ads and returning to church makes sense, said Liaugminas, who spent the first 20 years of her career in the secular media.

“The secular culture is so tuned into the media, and we have to meet people where they are,” she said. “Everybody is pretty much tuned in and plugged in all the time.”

Peter Casarella, professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University, said he also supports the use of widespread media, if only to issue an invitation for people to learn more about the church.

Casarella said he was introduced to the Catholics Come Home initiative at a prayer service Cardinal George led with members of lay ecclesial movements earlier this fall; Casarella is a member of Communion and Liberation, one of the groups that attended.

After hearing about the effort, Casarella signed up as a volunteer to help coordinate efforts in his home parish, St. Thomas the Apostle in Hyde Park.

Those efforts will be the most important in determining whether the campaign is a success, he said.

“The ads are going to pique some interest and arouse some curiosity,” he said. “But then the burden falls in the court of the people of God. It’s clear that ads don’t evangelize; an ad by itself is not an adequate vehicle for evangelization. It’s only when you have that face-to-face meeting between individuals that you can communicate the Gospels.”

‘Historical prodding’

The ads in question feature a series of people describing why they stopped going to church, and why they returned. Another spot shows someone looking back at her life and the way it was changed by faith. Another shows ways the church and its people have contributed to human culture.

“People don’t think about that when they’re being inundated with more negative images,” Casarella said. “It’s a historical prodding, and I think that’s good.”

Liaugminas concurred. While surveys show that many people stop practicing their faith for no reason other than they fall out of the habit, others leave because of a bad experience or because they don’t understand what the church really teaches.

This initiative invites them to see the church beyond their earlier experience and learn what it is all about. “It’s non-threatening. It’s non-accusatory. It’s not sappy,” she said. “It’s just giving people an opportunity to take another look, to learn about what they think they are rejecting.”

Of course, Liaugminas said, parishes — from the pastors to the staff to the members — must be ready to welcome them.

Casarella said Catholics should take their cues from the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son.

“We can sometimes be like the older brother,” he said. “But we need to have great joy when people come back.”

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