Catholics Come Home sparks debate, interest

  • January 16, 2013

Among the most ambitious media outreach programs in recent years involving religion is Catholics Come Home (CCH), an independent, U.S.-based, non-profit Catholic apostolate. Founded in the late 1990s, it creates media messages to invite lapsed Catholics back to church and to inspire and educate others, including non-Catholics, in religious knowledge in keeping with the magisterium.

After 33 American campaigns, CCH has begun its first Canadian outreach, in the dioceses of Vancouver and Victoria. While the campaign is bigger than TV advertising — parish welcoming committees, special events and other outreach initiatives are also important — the media component tends to attract the most attention.

Such was the case in The Globe and Mail on Jan. 3. In a column titled “Does Catholics Come Home campaign have a prayer?”, Gary Mason gave his assessment of the “controversial” program, complete with lots of detail about his own lapse from Catholicism and his view of what the Catholics Come Home program is likely, or unlikely, to achieve.

Citing Archbishop Michael Miller’s estimate that a quarter million Catholics in the archdiocese are no longer practising their faith, Mason rather cynically estimated that if the campaign enticed even 10 per cent of them back, “that’s nearly 25,000 new(ish) parishioners and a far heavier collection plate. And you’d certainly have to think that declining revenue is playing some sort of role in this membership drive.”

In fairness, the article also included some thoughtful insights on why church attendance is down, and not only (or even principally) in the Catholic Church, including lack of interest, lack of time, a perception that the Church needs to get with the times, teachings on sexuality that many do not accept or find difficult, and the sex abuse scandal. Of course many people raised in the mainstream Protestant churches have also stopped attending. The only difference I’ve ever noticed is that most of them continue to identify themselves loosely with the tradition in which they were raised.

I’ve visited the Catholics Come Home web site and viewed the TV spots, which discuss charitable and educational works, sacramental life and community life. I think the only people who would regard the package as controversial are those who regard the Church itself as controversial. Evangelization is part of what Christianity is about. While there will always be legitimate questions about one outreach program or another, there’s no getting around the fact that attempting to share the Good News is a good and necessary thing, provided it’s done with respect and courtesy.

The CCH cites American evidence to demonstrate the need for outreach, but the data is comparable to Canada. No more than a quarter of adult Catholics attend Mass weekly. The number of Americans identifying themselves as “unaffiliated” with a religious tradition continues to increase dramatically, and now makes up more than 15 per cent of the population.

Despite the growth of the Internet and social media, television continues to consume a huge proportion of our entertainment time, with the average Canadian household tuning in for 24 to 26 hours a week. Even though youth spend more time glued to their iPads or computer screens, they are often using them to watch television shows.

CCH founder Tom Peterson is kinder than many people about media coverage of the program, and religion in general. According to the B.C. Catholic, he says that despite some negative reporting, most of the media realize the good work of the Church in the world.

“We can’t take the credit, but we can thank the Holy Spirit, for starting hospitals and universities, and for being the largest charitable organization on the planet.”

He added that he enjoyed talking with the Canadian media about the Vancouver initiative when he was visiting in October, stating that Canadian journalists showed respect and kindness even when asking tough questions. Local coverage of the CCH program included criticisms, but has been generally well-balanced.

Advertising on television or elsewhere is only a tool. The content of any ad is unlikely to sway people who have already been well and truly “turned off” by an institution or product. For the sizeable group who have drifted away from Church for no particular reason, however, this type of program may be effective in re-igniting interest.

The CCH claims their program results in attendance bumps of 10 to 18 per cent. Whether these gains are sustainable is more difficult to document. But the initial surge of interest sparked by the CCH program is important and shouldn’t be discounted.

(McGarry is Executive Director of the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada.)

 


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