Throughout the Christmas season, the Diocese of Buffalo participated in a large-scale television and social media campaign called Catholics Come Home which intended to welcome Catholics who have fallen away from the faith for various reasons and no longer attend Mass on a regular basis.
Last month, Dennis Mahaney, director of the diocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, reflected on the success of this campaign and said parishes have noticed increases and made some big changes as a result.
In March, Mahaney, as coordinator of the Catholics Come Home campaign in the diocese, said he received a number of direct inquiries from fallen-away Catholics who saw commercials promoting the Catholic Church, dubbed "evangomercials," and experienced renewed interest in their faith.
"One call (to my office) came from a young man who saw the CCH messages on TV," Mahaney said. "He visited the catholicscomehome.org site. Visits to that site were up 4,000 percent from our area after the campaign. This young man had several jarring events in his life that shook his confidence in God, and made him question what he learned as a youth about his Catholic faith."
However, after seeing a Catholics Come Home message, he called Mahaney, asking for a recommendation for reading material that could encourage him to return to his faith. In response, Mahaney told the man to read "Rediscover Catholicism," by Matthew Kelly, which he read and "loved." Since then, the two have continued to talk on the phone and the man was "satisfied with his decision to return to the Church."
In discussing what feedback he has personally received from various parishes, Mahaney said parishes in the diocese have reported an average of three to ten new inquiries as a result of Catholics Come Home. He said parishes with the most people coming back were ones that could "able to take time, with a manageable number of people, who came forward looking to return to the practice of their faith."
Although Mahaney said the size of the individual parishes did not affect the overall number of people who came back, and thus the success of the program, smaller parishes received the largest impact in terms of percentage of returnees. Immaculate Conception in Wellsville, a parish of only 100 households, had a total of 12 people come back, which Mahaney called a "tremendous success."
At St. Michael Parish in Warsaw, an ad published in a local newspaper led to results. Cyndy Rebisz, who is on the parish's committee of faith formation along with her husband, Joseph, led the Catholics Come Home campaign after the pastor of St. Michael, Father James Hartwell, gave them the task of beginning it there. The community response to the newspaper advertisement was "very good," she said.
"It named everybody who would be welcome into the family," Rebisz explained, adding the advertisement called on people of all identities or characteristics, whether single or married, rich or poor, or if people were "skinny as a rail" or "could afford to lose a few pounds," among others. Rebisz had received compliments from some friends of friends who were not Catholic, but saw the ad and liked it.
At Christmastime, they wrapped copies of "The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic," by Matthew Kelly, for all of the adult parishioners to take home to their families. After Easter, the parish will be participating in a book study on it. For Ash Wednesday, they gave out small cards people could carry in wallets or pockets, with crosses on them, as symbols of Catholic identity. To create an open and welcoming environment, the parish is in the process of beginning to create nametags to identify ministers of hospitality.
"I thought (the evangomercials) were excellent," Rebisz said. "We're a small, rural parish, and I heard it in some small circles and it was very positive feedback. Whether it made a difference in the outlying areas here, I'm not sure, but I thought they were very well done."
Father Hartwell said Catholics Come Home has ultimately helped emphasize the New Evangelization, since people realized it is not as difficult as it seemed. A common misconception of evangelization is of people going door-to-door, knocking or ringing doorbells and asking neighbors about their faith.
"It's kind of a joke. Unfortunately, it's a reality, too," Father Hartwell said. "Or they see the people on TV, and they think that is what evangelization is. No, bring a friend to Church. Ask somebody who hasn't been to Church lately, 'Hey, do you want to come to Mass with me?' That's evangelization, or at least the simplest form of it. They don't have to re-invent the wheel here, in many cases."
Another diocesan parish, St. Joseph in Gowanda, also implemented some new programs and saw success as a result of Catholics Come Home. Cindy Peglowski, a part-time church secretary, was involved in a presentation of a CD at the parish Masses to start the campaign. They completed hospitality training and started a book club, which also read Kelly's "The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic."
"The parish ordered enough for every family to take one," she said. "We would read a chapter and then get together here on Wednesday evenings, from 7 p.m. until it ended, discussing the chapter of the book. We have also joined with St. Mary in Cattaraugus." Father Joseph Porpiglia, pastor of St. Joseph, had ordered a Matthew Kelly CD, distributed on Ash Wednesday, which also drew interest in the parish.
As the campaign began, Father Porpiglia, who is also pastor of the linked parish of St. Mary in Cattaraugus, had a positive outlook. He said it was "great to get people interested in the book," and he was impressed with both of his parishes and got positive feedback. The book club lasted for two six-week sessions. On Ash Wednesday, the church was open for confession, ashes and prayer all day long. Father Porpiglia said he planned to put more of an emphasis on keeping the church open longer for people to pray.
"I think (Catholics Come Home) raised the awareness of the Catholics' presence. It stirred interest. I know of one person in particular, and I've heard of a couple of other people who have started coming around since the Catholics Come Home program," he said. "The book, and our openness, drew some people in."
"I can't help but think that the Catholics Come Home campaign is what is encouraging - and it's Father Joe, who is a wonderful pastor - but maybe the whole Catholics Come Home is what's leading people to do different things to try to bring vitality to their parish," Peglowski concluded.