Ads call Catholics back to church

Finding a way back

Twenty years ago, Cristine Bays left the Catholic Church. There was no big pronouncement or public protest.


"I had just drifted away," said Bays, an Evans mother of three.

The same is true for millions of Catholics who don't attend weekly Mass, or who have fallen away from religion entirely or become Protestant.

A new program -- half evangelism effort, half public relations campaign -- issues an invitation to out-of-practice Catholics across Georgia.

Television commercials created by the nonprofit lay organization Catholics Come Home will air on network and cable television from Dec. 17 to Jan. 23. The commercials, in English and Spanish, will air during prime time. Some celebrate church history; others show the testimony of Catholics who have "come home."

The Catholic Diocese of Savannah raised $160,000 to air the commercials throughout its 90 counties, including Richmond and Columbia.

The average American watches four hours of TV a day, making the campaign one of the most effective ways to bring Catholics back to the church, said Tom Peterson, a former marketing executive who founded Georgia-based Catholics Come Home in 1998.

He was "nominally Catholic" until attending a retreat in Arizona, which renewed his faith.

"God was calling me to use my advertising talents to serve him," Peterson said. "The light bulbs went off, and the adventure began."

He moved to Roswell, Ga., to grow the ministry. Since its founding, some 200,000 Catholics have returned to the church. When the commercials were launched in the Phoenix market, 92,000 Catholics returned. "That was just in one city," Peterson said.

On average, each diocese sees Mass attendance increase 10 percent.

Most, like Bays, don't have serious issues with the church but have fallen out of the habit of regular church attendance, Peterson said. Catholics Come Home's research has shown that the average Catholic who leaves then returns to the church has been away for nine years.

It took a personal invitation for Bays to return, she said. During a hospital stay three years ago, she was visited daily by churchgoers.

"It was the push I needed," said Bays, now a member of St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Grovetown, where her husband, Brian, will soon convert to Catholicism.

Augusta parishes were recently visited by Bishop J. Kevin Boland and other leaders in the diocese. They're traveling the state to deliver workshops on how to deal with the influx of members.

"We know we have to be more welcoming. It's everything from opening doors to saying hello and offering a doughnut or two. It's the stuff Protestants figured out years ago," Joe Soparas said with a laugh. He and his wife, Mary, are coordinators of St. Teresa's Catholics Come Home program.

Priests are also setting aside time to meet with those returning to the church or grappling with issues, said the Rev. Michael Lubinsky, the parochial vicar of The Church of the Most Holy Trinity in downtown Augusta.

"Catholics Come Home is a process for all Catholics, inactive and active, by which all are invited to come to the Lord by the holy sacraments of love and mercy and affection and forgiveness," he said.

From 2000 to 2010, only 22 percent of U.S. Catholics attended Mass on a weekly basis, according to a poll by CARA, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a nonprofit Georgetown University-affiliated research center that studies the Catholic Church. That speaks to the millions of Americans who identify as Catholic but aren't practicing Catholics, Peterson said.

"This is an invitation for them, too," he said.

With at least 68 million members, the Catholic Church claims more adherents than any other American denomination, about 22 percent of the U.S. population. With membership waning, 1 in 10 Americans identifies as a former Catholic, according to the most recent Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches, compiled in 2008.

"For the most part, it's really the secular lures of the world that pull people away. Life gets busy," Peterson said. "Ninety percent say they'd come back if someone invited them."

Catholics Come Home usually runs its six-week campaigns through the Christmas season or Lent.

"It's a great time to issue an invitation," Peterson said.

"Most people see the ad on TV and say, 'I started to tear up. I felt like God was personally calling me home.' "

It's not the first time local churches have tried to bring Catholics back, but previous efforts have been low-budget, piecemeal and largely contained to a single church, Joe Soparas said. The Soparases have coordinated Awakening Faith, a program for returning Catholics, at St. Teresa for a number of years.

"We talk about forgiving the church if you've ever had a run-in with a priest. We offer a kind of Bible 101. We show them how to branch out into ministries of the church. We talk about being divorced," Joe Soparas said.

"It's a chance for them to grow on their own journey. We walk beside them," Mary Soparas said. "We see them active in the church. We see them in the pews. We know people come in if you're willing to reach out."

Bays, who went through the program three years ago, is thankful the Soparases are there. They helped her connect with other ministries in the church.

"I'm a different person now," she said. "When you open your heart, mind and soul to the Catholic Church, you are opening the door to the church that Jesus founded 2,000 years ago.

"There is beauty; there is peace; there is love, healing, and forgiveness; and there is the true presence of our Lord -- body, blood, soul and divinity -- waiting for you to accept the invitation to his banquet. I invite anyone and everyone to just come and see. All are welcome."

Why Catholics leave the church

An April 2009 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life asked former Catholics why they left the church. Reasons for those who became Protestants included:

- Spiritual needs not being met: 71 percent

- Found denomination they liked more: 70 percent

- Just gradually drifted away: 54 percent

- Stopped believing in the church's teachings: 50 percent

- Married someone of a different faith: 29 percent

- Unhappy with teachings on abortion and homosexuality: 23 percent

- Unhappy with teachings on divorce, remarriage: 23 percent

- Clergy sex abuse scandal: 21 percent

- Unhappy with teachings on birth control: 16 percent