By Genevieve Pollock
CHICAGO, DEC. 4, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The local parish communities of the Chicago, Joliet and Rockford dioceses are joining forces to invite and welcome Catholics “back home,” launching a media campaign that will span the 21 counties of Northern Illinois.
Father Richard Hynes, director of the Chicago Archdiocese’s Office for Evangelization, explained to ZENIT that the tri-diocesan initiative will run from Dec. 16 to Jan. 24, with ads appearing on all the major television networks throughout the area in English, Polish and Spanish, inviting fallen away Catholics to return to their parish “homes.”
The initiative is part of the Catholics Come Home program, which has already been run in several dioceses around the country and will soon be brought to a national level, as well as to Australia.
This Christmas season, the ads will target their largest market in an area that numbers some 3.4 million Catholics.
Father Hynes reported that the project, which has been a year in preparation, has received a great response from pastors and parishes. Of the 357 parishes in the archdiocese, he said, there are currently 320 who have a “contact person” who is “on the ground,” coordinating with the evangelization office to make this initiative effective on a local level.
The office has been bringing together many different pieces with the aim of not only inviting people back to church, but also making them feel welcome and accompanied in their journey.
The evangelization team held a luncheon for secretaries and receptionists, who they called the “Minister of First Impressions,” and offered guidelines for ushers and greeters at Mass to help people feel more welcome.
A whole family
Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago, addressed a letter to the parish communities on Sunday, asking all people to consider inviting non-practicing Catholics to “come home to the household of the faith.”
“As we celebrate Christmas,” he said, “the whole family should surround Jesus’ crib; those who absent themselves from this birthday celebration are sorely missed.”
The cardinal affirmed: “Studies show that those Catholics who do not attend Mass regularly think differently from those who do attend each Sunday.
“Hearing the Gospel proclaimed and explained and coming together around the altar of the Lord to worship in spirit and in truth changes us.”
Without this, he said, the “only inner voices that tell people how to think and what to do come from secular sources: the media, the entertainment industry, political disputes that do not rise to the level of moral principle.”
Among these voices in the media are those campaigning to promote atheism, such as an ad initiative launched by the Chicago Coalition for Reason at the end of October. The group sponsored a billboard in downtown Chicago that claimed, “Are you good without God? Millions are.”
Billboards of this type have been springing up around the country, although in at least one city last month, the coalition was forced to remove the ad after a couple days due to public outcry.
Father Hynes noted that it is unclear whether the Chicago billboard went up in connection with the archdiocese’s announcement of the Catholics Come Home campaign some months ago.
What is clear, however, is that the Church’s more than 2,000 television ads encompass a greater scope than the atheistic ads. “I have seen a couple of signs on buses,” the priest acknowledged, but not many other indications of the coalition.
Nonetheless, he said “that certain groups I suspect will use this as an opportunity” of furthering their goals.
The director of the evangelization office affirmed that Father Robert Barron, another priest of the archdiocese who is a national author and speaker, has given written and video responses to these atheistic initiatives. These resources will be included on the office’s Web site.
The site, which up till now has been a base for the coordination and sharing of resources between all those involved in the campaign, is currently being revamped as a portal for those who have been away from the faith and want a way to return.
On Monday, Father Hynes said, the new version will be online, including all of the former sections, plus various parts for Catholics who want information about Confession schedules or catechetical material, or those who are interested in entering the Church.
This evangelization mission is “not about getting more Catholics;” it is not proselytizing, he clarified. “It is about reaching out to current Catholics, [in the spirit] of the new evangelization of John Paul II, reaching out to our brothers and sisters who have drifted.”
Nonetheless, he added, in other places where this program has run, there have been people coming forward who had been thinking for some time about becoming Catholic, but lacking the invitation or the knowledge of how to do it. “This initiative will give a focus to that desire,” Father Hynes said.
For example, some people have been thinking about joining the faith of their spouse, he explained.
Divorce and annulment
In fact, one part of this outreach addresses marriage issues in particular.
A resource page on the Web site explains, “As we prepare for the Catholics Come Home evangelization initiative we have to be aware that many who return to the Church may have left because of issues around marriage and divorce.”
Suggestions are offered for those parish members doing the welcoming, and to instruct parish staff in giving support to divorced Catholics.
As well, the Metropolitan Tribunal Office and the Office for Family Ministries were informed of “the potential needs that may arise after the TV ads begin to invite people back to the Church.”
Father Hynes said there will be seminars on marriage and annulments during the Easter season to foster awareness and understanding of these issues, as one of the activities the office will be sponsoring after the media campaign.
Other catechetical events will also be held, and the office already has a program through May to follow up on the advertising.
The director of the evangelization office noted some time may pass before the effects are seen; he is waiting until next October, six months after the initiative’s start, to count an increase in the numbers attending Mass.
In Phoenix, where the campaign first ran in 2008, there were 1,000 people participating in a catechetical training program six months later.
The advertising brings the topic to the consciousness of people, the priest said, but they might not do something about it immediately.
“So the hope is that this five-and-a-half week initiative on TV will implant in the hearts and minds of many people who are far from the practice of the faith, a conscious awareness that they are invited, and that it may be time to take a second look,” Father Hynes said.
“It’s hard to say” when the “response will be obvious and effective,” he said. However, just last week there were 2,600 hits on our Web site, he added.
“I think the results will be interesting, surprising, and only God’s work,” the priest affirmed. “God gives the growth.
“You cannot manufacture people’s conversion, their hearts and behavior to return them to the practice of the faith. We cannot produce the results.”
We just work hard and pray, Father Hynes said.
Cardinal George urged Catholics, “You are the voice of the Church, and you can be the voice of invitation.”
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On the Net:
Chicago Web site: http://www.catholicscomehomechicago.org/
Joliet Web site: http://www.catholicscomehomejoliet.org/
Rockford Web site: http://www.catholicscomehomerockfor