WASHINGTON — Just as they have during the season of Advent in recent years, some U.S. dioceses make concerted efforts at Lent to invite Catholics who have stopped going to church back into the fold.
Some dioceses have reported success with the "Catholics Come Home" campaign, while others have set their focus on using the sacrament of reconciliation during Lent to draw Catholics back who have drifted away from the practice of their faith.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, which this year is Feb. 22. A day of fast and abstinence, it is not a holy day of obligation, but is one of the top three solemn occasions in the church that draws the biggest crowds.
Catholics Come Home, an organization based in the Atlanta suburbs, has been used in 33 dioceses with television commercials reaching an estimated 40 million viewers in regional Lenten and Christmas campaigns — and 250 million in national campaigns, said the organization's founder and president, Tom Peterson.
Not all dioceses have before-and-after numbers, but "in those dioceses that have had historical census data and have been able to track since Catholics Come Home, Mass attendance has increased an average of 10 percent," Peterson said.
Waging such a campaign, especially with TV ads, can seem costly, Peterson admitted. "Bishops and dioceses don't have extra money to do things like this, but when families and parishioners are asked if they have a relative, a friend, a neighbor or a co-worker away from the church, nearly 100 percent say yes," he said. "And when they're asked, 'Would you like them to come home?' tens of thousands of people say yes" by contributing to the cost of such a campaign.
Peterson told Catholic News Service that a campaign can be undertaken "that would be bringing souls home for about 11 dollars apiece — a pretty good investment, in my view."
The Diocese of Colorado Springs, Colo., used Catholics Come Home for "two or three years" when the program was still in its infancy, said Bishop Michael Sheridan.
"I, as any bishop, recognized the fact that there are many, many Catholics out there who for one reason or another have drifted away from the practice of their faith," Bishop Sheridan told CNS.
"Yes, we had success. We haven't continued to track it year after year to see how many have stayed with the faith as a result of that. But when those ads were done, there were significant bumps in attendance at Mass and at the confessional," he said.
"It was as successful as anything I had ever seen. I'm glad to see it's gone national," Bishop Sheridan added. "Pastors tell me that they're in the confessional for hours, more than their regularly scheduled time. People will come, and they'll sit in there for two or three hours to hear confessions. It's clear that people want to get reconciled with God and the church. Many are regular faithful Catholics. Others are returning to the practice of their faith after many years."
The Archdiocese of Boston worked with Catholics Come Home last year during Lent, said Scot Landry, the archdiocese's secretary for Catholic media.
Landry said he worked with Catholics Come Home last Lent, having first gotten in touch with the apostolate in 2008, after "somebody sent me a link to their first commercial, and I thought I was the best presentation of the Catholic faith I had seen in just two minutes."
Catholics Come Home served as a successor to "Arise Together in Christ," an archdiocesan initiative that had finished the year before.
The markers for success are "a little bit higher here," Landry told CNS. "Some folks are disgusted by the Catholic Church here." The archdiocese was the epicenter of the clergy sexual abuse scandal that broke 10 years ago. In addition, by the middle of the 2000s, the archdiocese had to close or consolidate dozens of parishes.
"Many Catholics held their head low here for many years," Landry said. "But with the frequency of the commercials that were aired, they started saying, 'Gee, I didn't know the church had been involved in all this for all these years.'"
Although the archdiocese didn't track the effects statistically, it asked pastors for the feedback they were getting from parishioners. "Those that were already coming to church felt that this campaign was a huge boost to their Catholic identify and their morale."
The archdiocese also is participating in a campaign called "The Light Is On for You," which encourages Catholics long absent from the church to go to confession during Lent.
The initiative, started by the Archdiocese of Washington, has been "very successful for us in Lent," Landry said. "This is our third year doing it, and it's been very successful."
Bishop Sheridan in Colorado Springs offered a succinct analysis of why such programs are effective: "Especially before Easter and during Lent, people have a heightened sense of need for conversion."
Added Landry, "We see this as the first step of a long-term process of inviting people back to the church."