An extensive workshop on why people may drift away from the Church, and how to re-engage them when they return, took place at Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora on Oct. 24. The workshop was in preparation for the "Catholics Come Home" program which the diocese will undertake.
"Catholics Come Home" is a nationwide program to appeal to Catholics who have fallen away from the Church. The program centers around time primarily on television and social media, designed to invite and welcome Catholics back to Church. The "Catholics Come Home" commercials begin airing in December.
Sister Louise Alff, OSF, was the main speaker at the workshop titled, "Inactive Catholics: When They Return, What Makes Them Stay." According to Dennis Mahaney, diocesan director for Evangelization and Parish Life, Sister Louise was chosen to speak at the seminary because of her background as a coordinator for parish evangelization for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and being a native of Buffalo who served at St. Leo the Great Parish in Amherst, among others.
"I know what it's like to work in parishes," Sister Louise said. "The last thing you want is to go away with a lot of theory. You want to go away with something concrete that at least you can wrap your arms around, tweak it of course to make it your own, but something you can go home with."
Sister Louise covered a number of topics, ranging from hospitality, specific suggestions, the profiles of those who will be returning, as well as an explanation about what will be done in the diocese to promote the "evangomercials." Sister Louise likened individual parishes' campaigns to a marketing campaign: the "product" being sold is Jesus Christ, and parishes need to take more steps to make the product attractive.
The Catholics Come Home evangomercials will begin airing Dec. 15, during peak hours, including Sabres games on MSG, all networks and basic cable. Mahaney said Catholics Come Home looks like a media campaign. Parishes have received instructions on how to proceed, as well as links to its homepage, catholicscomehome.org.
"This has happened in 37 other dioceses in the last four or five years," Mahaney said. "Some dioceses have reported a 10 to 20 percent increase in attendance. You're going to start seeing (the commercials) right before Christmas, but you're going to see them all the way through the Baptism of the Lord, so you're going to see them all the way through a good part of January, too."
Those who attend Mass once a month or more, excluding Christmas and Easter, are counted as practicing Catholics, according to Pew Research. Approximately 38 percent retain their Catholic identity but attend Mass less frequently or not at all. Sacramental marriages are down 60 percent nationwide in the last 13 years, with a 50 percent decrease in the Diocese of Buffalo, according to Sister Louise.
The most disenfranchised parishioners tend to be single people and couples without children, since most parishes tend to be family-centered. Sister Louise identified several types of wayward Catholics and offered suggestions to help them.
"Suggest resources that will help them," Sister Louise said. "If your parish does not have a healing Mass, find out parishes that do have healing Masses. Suggest parish support if you have a grief support, or so on. That's what these people are looking for - more than just the Church experience, they're looking for something that will continue to heal them."
Sister Louise asked representatives of the parishes to consider if their own parish is welcoming to newcomers, not just to those people who have been coming for years. She said in order to make sure a parish is truly open to others, people need to reach out to others around them. She also said ministering to people with disabilities is crucial, and often an overlooked part of being a welcoming parish.
"If a parish offers services for people with disabilities, such as Masses in sign language, Braille signage in the church or wheelchair ramps, these should be clearly emphasized on that parish's website, Facebook page, bulletin and any other printed material the parish distributes," Sister Louise said. "Otherwise, people may not be aware that the parish will be able to accommodate their disability."
Mahaney said the people the Catholics Come Home campaign hopes to connect with are close at hand.
"They are our cousins, our nephews, our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters," Mahaney said. "They're right there. What we do with this, the leveraging we make of this, will determine the real success of this campaign, because I don't care how wonderfully they are produced, (evangomercials) will only get them to our door. It's what happens to them when they show up that will decide whether or not they decide to stay."