By now Catholics have no doubt seen commercials inviting them to come home to the Church. Hopefully, some have accepted the gesture and stopped by their childhood parish or the church around the corner. Now pastors and parish councils have to decide how to keep them.
The "evangomercials," as they are called, are part of the Catholics Come Home campaign inspired by St. John Paul II's call for a New Evangelization for all Catholics to re-propose the Gospel to those who have had a crisis of faith or embraced secularism.
Dennis Mahaney, director of the diocesan Office of Evangelization and Parish Life, has led convocations and trainings for local parishes. He promotes a five-step process for evangelization. First, prepare the parishioners by making them aware of the call to evangelize and their role in doing so. Then equip the parishioners by training them. Mahaney has led 20 hospitality workshops, teaching people how to welcome new people to their parishes.
Mahaney has worked with parishes using the parish planning guide which looks at the whole process, and asks what they need to do to optimize the impact of the program. He has been encouraging parishes to plan what to do if they really want people back.
Welcoming is another key phase. Once people are aware of an invitation, the parish community should welcome newcomers. Mahaney's hospitality training encourages people to introduce themselves during the sign of peace and offer assistance to newcomers. Some parishes, such as St. John the Baptist in Alden, have implemented the "three-minute rule" starting at Christmas. After each Mass, everyone spends three minutes greeting and speaking with a newcomer.
To aid in the welcoming process, Mahaney's office gave out 1,200 welcome brochures from Our Sunday Visitor. Parishes use these to remind visitors that they are important and explain how they can process newly awoken spiritual feelings.
"Some people are going to give these brochures to everybody," Mahaney said. "They want to give them to parishioners and have them hand them out to the next person. Give that to someone you know and invite them to the Church."
Some parishes have handed out crosses or rosaries as gifts to new people, with the brochures.
St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Athol Springs asks newcomers to fill out guest cards, then lets them keep the pen. Others use guest surveys to get feedback about how newcomers felt about the experience. St. Christopher's in Tonawanda has gone visual with large banners outside their doors welcoming people.
"If you drive by it, you can't miss it," Mahaney said. "From Niagara Falls Boulevard you see these giant banners on the church."
Beyond welcoming, parishes should connect with people once Mass is over. Mahaney encourages the use of social media and videos to keep interested people involved in the Church while outside of the church.
"Grab videos and put them up on your Facebook," he said. "St. Aloysius Gonzaga has it on their Facebook page, and they've pinned it so it's the first thing. Every couple of days they're putting a new video or a new episode of "Catholic Come Home" that's going on EWTN, where people give their personal witnesses. They're pumping this stuff out so that they're letting people know."
The last and most important step, once the people are aware of the Church and decide to attend and feel comfortable and welcomed, they must be engaged.
Christmas and Ash Wednesday are the two biggest days of attendance at Church, so parishes should have some sort of activity to engage newcomers and regular attendees as well, between those two dates.
Some parishes are doing the One Book One Parish activity. This is when a parish offers a few books for loan to the parishioners who read it, bring it back, then form discussion groups.
"Whoever wants to look at a book and grow in their faith between now and Lent, grab the book and bring it back next weekend and put it on this table," Mahaney said.
Other parishes are lining up guest speakers or witness speakers. Programs like Living the Eucharist, designed to create a more profound experience at Sunday Mass, are also being used. Some parishes engage people in prayer by holding perpetual adoration.
"This interim period is where parishes hope to keep the energy going in a positive direction, then engage them especially at Ash Wednesday," Mahaney said. "What we hope people are hearing is that there is this little period right now after Christmas, where they can do something nice to keep people's attention. Some of the priests are preaching on welcoming or what it means to be a Christian community. Then Lent happens and they have to be real intentional about retaining the people who show up."
Studies show that 10 to 15 percent of newcomers will continue to attend Mass as long they do not feel alienated.
"Even if you don't do anything, a certain percentage will stick around," Mahaney said. "We can make that a much bigger percentage. And we could have them, not just involved; we could move them to being engaged. There's no secret formula about this. If you're really intentional, and you really want to keep them, there really are some pretty straightforward things. That's what we've been telling people in the workshops. The first workshop was what makes them come, what makes them stay. You have to have a mission that people care about. Can you communicate who you are and what your particular niche is? Why should they come to your church and not the one three blocks away?"
At Mahaney's parish, Our Lady of Hope in Buffalo, there is a great outreach to refugee populations.
"Everything our parish is about seems to focus on welcoming strangers," he said. "We know who we are and what we're about, and we know what we're doing and we're doing it. Every parish has to figure that out."
The New Evangelization commission plans to sponsor events to help parishes welcome and engage newcomers.
"We want parishes to keep doing this as a regular routine," Mahaney said. "Do something special on Christmas to reach out. Do something special on Ash Wednesday to welcome people and whether God is at the center of your life or not and what you want to do about that. This pattern of prepare, equip, connect, welcome and engage. We want to make this a routine process for parish life."
For more information on the Catholics Come Home program visit their website.