Catholics Come Home: a fresh approach to re-evangelising

Catholics Come Home: a fresh approach to re-evangelising

Bob Denahy

Bob Denahy taught Japanese at Geelong Grammar and Girton College, Bendigo, before buying a farm in north-east Victoria where he educated his own children in the 1980s and 90s.

When visiting Australia in 1986 Pope John Paul sent out a clarion call to those who had fallen away from the Catholic Church, "Come back, come back!"

About 85 per cent of Catholics in Australia have become inactive and what they hear about the Catholic Church in the media probably helps confirm them in that condition.

It might be unfair to say the secular media never has a good word to say about the Church, but it is true to say that if the word "Catholic" is mentioned, it is normally followed by a story that casts the Church in a bad light.

Typical was a recent promo on SBS: "Secret Files of the Inquisition ... Imagine a reign of terror lasting 600 years ... Revealing the Catholic Church's war on ideas."

Typical, too, was the media's reaction to Pope Benedict's remark en route to Africa that using condoms only exacerbates the AIDS pandemic. Though scientific data support the Pope, the media ignored the evidence and portrayed him as ignorant and heartless.

This constant mud-slinging must have an impact on those who are not Catholic and those Catholics who no longer practise their Faith. As Fulton Sheen remarked, "They grow to hate, not the Catholic Church, but what they think is the Catholic Church."

An enterprising American layman, Tom Peterson, who recently visited Australia has deftly sidestepped this negative exposure with one of those "why-didn't-anyone-think-of-it- before" ideas.

His tactic is pro-active rather than defensive. Instead of reacting to the mud-slinging, he simply presents the facts about the Catholic Church, historical, doctrinal and cultural. The results have been dramatic.

Mr Peterson is president and founder of a lay-apostolate called Catholics Come Home. Before having a radical re-conversion to the Catholic Faith about twelve years ago, he was an award-winning advertising executive earning $250,000 a year. He drove a Mercedes Benz convertible and owned a beautiful lakeside home where he lived with his wife and three daughters. He apparently had the lot. Though he continued to attend Sunday Mass, his mind was usually elsewhere. Despite this seeming abundance, he knew deep-down there was something he still lacked: happiness.

While making a retreat at the suggestion of his parish priest, Tom had a radical conversion. He felt called by God to downsize and simplify his lifestyle. So he offloaded the trappings of wealth and decided to take seriously the Church's injunction for all her members, lay as well as religious, to evangelise.

He decided he would use his advertising skills to advertise the Catholic Church and try to win back the approximate 70 per cent of American Catholics who are inactive.

He spent several years travelling to various countries, as well as to Rome, producing 30 second, one- minute and two-minute television advertisements. The common res- ponse of those who view them is, "They make me proud to be Catholic." And when those who return to the Faith are asked why, they usually say, "Because you invited me."

The ads were trialled over a period of six to seven weeks in the United States about a year ago and as many as 92,000 Catholics came back to the practice of the Faith in just one diocese - and there were many converts. Several months later a survey was conducted to see how many had stayed - nearly all had.

"People in our Western world are suffering from 'affluenza' - a sickness of the soul caused by chronic consumerism," says Tom. "St Augustine spoke truly when he wrote that our souls were made for God and they will not rest till they rest in Him."

He added: "The average American is desensitised by the media. He spends an average of 38 hours a week watching television or connected to the internet. Over a life-span of 75 years, this equates to around 14 years, including four years watching advertisements."

With this ready-made audience, Tom has produced highly professional television ads portraying the Church as it truly is. They tell how the Church contains sinners and saints and how it can trace its history back in an unbroken line to the first pope appointed by Jesus Christ, Peter; that it has founded more hospitals, schools and universities than any other institution on the planet; that, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it compiled the Bible; that it has always promoted the sanctity of human life at all stages of development, as well as the sanctity of life-long marriage; and that in a confused and hurting world its teachings are consistent, true and strong.

The ads are welcoming and gentle, but at the same time powerful and compelling, and obviously produced by an expert in the trade.

Australia is the first country outside the United States where the ads have been promoted. Tom spoke, amongst others, to the bishops of Australia at the National Catholic Media Congress held in Sydney in May. He has also spoken at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and at the Vatican, and his ads were shown when Pope Benedict visited the United States.

At the end of each ad Catholics who have become inactive are invited to come home: "If, for any reason, you have fallen away from the Church, we invite you to have another look - visit today."

Those who do will learn the truth about the Catholic Church, and it will set them free.