The Diocese of Buffalo will take part in a nationwide program to appeal to Catholics who have fallen away from the Church. "Catholics Come Home," which has been launched in 37 American dioceses over the last six years, airs "evangomercials," designed to invite and welcome Catholics back to Church, using both television and social media.
Evangomercials begin airing here in December. The diocese will issue requests for prayer and financial support to parishes throughout October. The program's first major workshop with Sister Louise Alff, OSF, entitled "When They Return, What Makes Them Stay," takes place 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Friday, Oct. 24, as well as 9 a.m. to 12 noon, Saturday, Oct. 25, at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora.
"This initiative has already received the support of the Presbyteral Council, which appreciates the pope's words of urgency regarding our outreach to those who hunger for hope," Bishop Richard J. Malone said to diocesan priests. "In these secular times, the work of evangelization will be decisive in building vital parishes. I know you share the concern for the many Catholics who are episodic or inactive in the practice of their faith. I am convinced that we can start by welcoming those who are within easy reach."
The diocesan Office for Evangelization and Parish Life and its director, Dennis Mahaney, will lead the efforts to prepare parishes and their leaders with resources and outreach programs to welcome back those Catholics who have left the Church. At the end of the introductory period in May, the office will examine the program's effects and determine the next steps to ensure people who come back, stay.
"My role is to help (parishes) prepare and then implement reception and retention strategies, so when the people come back, either at Christmas Eve or the weeks following, how can we be a more welcoming community to them? How can we give them a reason to stay - not just come back, but stay, check us out and make some reformed relationships?" Mahaney said. "The retention strategies are, how do we engage them in our mission so they can feel like they have a long-term investment and a purpose in our parishes again? Very often, they'll drift away because they don't see how this is mutually beneficial."
According to Mahaney, if people do not feel fulfilled by going to Church, they will do so for as long as they feel they can until life gets in the way. "All of a sudden, they're not going to Church anymore, and nobody's following up or finding out why, and their lives take over," he said. Additionally, what the parishes do will depend on the individual needs, assets and challenges of their circumstances.
"Some parishes, it may be simply to help them reorient the attitudes of ushers on Sunday morning, or do some more intentional things about welcoming people, putting up better signage, even, so people know how to get from here to there, or where the bathrooms are," Mahaney explained.
Other suggestions Mahaney will offer might include making some parishes' buildings more accessible to elderly individuals and those with limitations and disabilities. Some of the parishes may want to follow up more effectively with visitors, so the visitors know the churches knew they were there and would like them to return. Further suggestions include book clubs, Living the Eucharist or outreach programs in the neighborhoods where parishes have merged and former parishioners have not come back.
Mahaney said the number one reason people come back to Church is because someone with whom that person is close invites them back. If they see the commercials on their own, they may respond if no one else encourages them, but it is crucial for Catholics to use the promos as talking points and springboards for future communication with other people who have stopped going to Church.
Since young adults are a large percentage of people who no longer go to Church, the campaign plans to make use of social media. "We need to address that: why are we irrelevant to people in their twenties? Why are we so patently irrelevant? We need to talk that out and figure out how we can become relevant again, because according to all the studies, Jesus is just as relevant as He ever was to anyone of any age," Mahaney commented. "He's just as fascinating to young people who get to know Him as He's ever been, but we are the ones that are not communicating that. If we change, they will find it attractive."
If people have left because of factors such as divorce and remarriage or differences in opinion regarding the Church's social teachings, Mahaney said many of the percentage of people who have left and stayed away for those reasons is due to a misconception about their situation, or they do not really understand what the Church teaches, but those people are still welcome. He stressed that many people on the inside of the Church have very little difference from those on the outside of the Church.
"They have just as many irregular marriages, and just as many deviations in terms of sexual morality, as the people outside, but they know it's not prohibitive. The people on the outside think it's prohibitive, when it really isn't," said Mahaney. "Almost always, once they hear what the teaching really is, they have very few real problems with it, or it could simply be that they don't agree ... But they somehow still believe that Christ wants to be in their lives. Whether they disagree, or they can afford to, or they can live out that teaching fully right now, isn't something they can do, but none of us do."
"None of us have holy, perfect lives. We all fall short here or there, so that's not the difference between the ones that go to church and the ones that don't, because we're all just about as spotty. We're here for the sick. We're not here for the saints, and by the way, we're all sick. How do we get that message across, that this isn't where you have to have your act together? We all don't, and that's what we help each other with."