There is a poster board in the narthex of St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Grovetown that says, “We Miss You.”
The hope is to draw the eyes of former or inactive Catholics who may have seen one of the television ads of Catholics Come Home, the national campaign inviting lapsed Catholics back to the church.
The Georgia-based nonprofit partnered with dioceses across the country to produce the church’s first prime-time advertising campaign, which aired on national television networks from December to January.
An estimated 250 million viewers in 10,000 cities saw the ads. Just how many former Catholics will return to the church is unknown. Results so far are modest, but they indicate that the campaign will prove to be powerful and life-changing for some.
“There are some incredible stories we’ve seen over the last year,” said Deacon Ken Maleck of St. Mary on the Hill Catholic Church. “People just needed to be reminded that the church is ready and willing to receive them with open arms.”
Viewers in Augusta have seen the ads before. Georgia was one of 30 or so regional markets to air the spots before the campaign went national.
The first time, Catholics Come Home in Roswell, Ga., developed a series of commercials for Advent 2010. They aired in English and Spanish nearly 5,000 times across Georgia at a cost of $160,000 to the Diocese of Savannah.
In the year since the ads first ran in Georgia, local parishes have offered classes and forums for those who have left the church to discuss their concerns.
Bob and Debbie Horowitz attended one at St. Mary on the Hill. The couple used to be active in their former congregation in St. Louis, said Bob Horowitz, who was raised Jewish and converted to Catholicism 30 years ago. They moved to Arizona, and later Augusta, but hadn’t found a new congregation.
“We got very far away from religion,” he said. “Religion didn’t play a big part in our lives.”
Last Christmas, they started attending St. Mary and signed up for the Catholics Come Home class, which held a “graduation” and dinner for parishioners who had been reconciled to the church through the campaign.
“My life has felt a lot more fulfilled,” he said. “I’m at peace with my life and my family.”
At St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Grovetown, Joanna Konczal was one of a few parishioners to share her story of reconciliation with Catholics Come Home. It’s been displayed online and in publications to encourage others who have stayed away to come back to the church.
“It took some time before I would actually come. It took me awhile to go back,” she said. “I was focused on my job. I had made some grave errors in my life.”
She was 18 and unwed when she found out she was pregnant. Konczal said that despite her strong Catholic upbringing, she chose an abortion.
“I felt shame,” she said. “I felt like I hadn’t deserved God’s forgiveness.”
Konczal is now a mother of two. Having been raised Catholic, she knew she wanted to get her daughter baptized. That was a turning point, she said.
“I attended the baptismal class,” she said. “I suddenly felt moved to go back to confession. After the confession, it became like a domino effect. I became hungry to read the Bible, join prayer groups, go to Mass.”
Konczal now attends daily Mass, often with one of her daughters.
“It really has changed us,” she said. “I feel like I have come home. In Poland, your whole family life revolves around the church. I really missed that. I have community again.”
She hopes sharing her story might offer the encouragement others need to go back to Mass or meet with a priest.
“You’ve got really nothing to lose and everything to gain,” she said. “You’ve just got to come here and find out for yourself.”
People leave the church for a wide variety of reasons. Like the Horowitzes, they’ll move away from a church without finding a new place to land. They’ll battle moral issues, the church’s stance on divorce, or have a bad experience with a priest, Maleck said.
“Up north, there are a lot of people mad at the church because of the clergy abuse,” he said. “We haven’t seen that down here as much. People just drift away. Something happens and faith just takes a back seat.”
About 10 percent of Americans identify as “former Catholics,” according to the Pew Forum’s 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.
While there are 65 million Catholics in the United States, making Catholicism the country’s largest denomination, only a third attend weekly Mass, according to a poll from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a Georgetown University-affiliated research center that studies the Catholic Church.
On average, Mass attendance increases an average of 10 percent when Catholics Come Home airs ads in a market, according to Catholics Come Home.
Since the ads first ran in the Diocese of Savannah, there’s been a small uptick in Mass attendance, said Barbara King, the director of communications for the Diocese of Savannah.
“Overall in the diocese, we saw an increase of about 950 people attending Mass in our 79 parishes and missions between October 2010 and 2011,” she said.
The campaign continues even after the commercials have gone off air, former Bishop J. Kevin Boland said in a statement.
“Catholics Come Home brought a new essential awareness both in our priests and our people that we should be about the task of evangelizing and most especially to invite back those who are not presently at the banquet table,” he said. “The projection of Catholics Come Home is a long-term focus.”
Mary and Joe Soparas have worked with returning Catholics at St. Teresa since 2005, when they held their first class on coming home to the church, long before Catholics Come Home launched in Georgia.
“We have had classes as large as 15 and as small as one person, so statistics are not the true measure of this program,” Joe Soparas, a deacon, said. “Bringing Catholics back to the church is an ongoing journey. The Holy Spirit works differently in all of us. Sometimes it takes a bit longer for a person to decide to make this faith journey and re-explore their spiritual roots.”
Soparas points to a parable Jesus told about a shepherd who leaves the flock of 99 to find one lost sheep. There’s much rejoicing when the one is found and returns.
“It is like that for Mary and me,” he said. “We may only have one or two at a time, but over time, that can build into quite a number of returning Catholics. We are in this as a pilgrim journey that has a long way to go.”