ATLANTA — The 47th Super Bowl will draw an audience of more than 100 million, but with its television ad spots selling at $6-$7 million apiece, Tom Peterson of Catholics Come Home admits that the possibility of buying one is “financially out of our league.”
But the founder of the 15-year-old Catholic evangelization organization, which airs inspirational television messages to persuade people to return to church, doesn’t intend to fumble away the Super Bowl season just because of the money issue.
As the NFL playoffs commenced in early January, Peterson was scrambling to raise the funding to broadcast Catholics Come Home ads during playoff games, including one just before the kickoff of the Atlanta Falcons’ first home playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. The Falcons won 30-28 on a last-second field goal.
“It takes a lot of people giving from their hearts,” Peterson acknowledged. “We have every confidence, however, that God will provide.”
CCH plunged into the televised football market in a big way recently, with a national advertisement featuring Lou Holtz, the famed former Notre Dame football coach. The ad aired throughout college football’s bowl week that ended with the Jan. 7 BCS National Championship game, in which Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish were drubbed 42-14 by the powerhouse University of Alabama Crimson Tide.
The 30-second ad features Holtz delivering a half-time “pep talk” reminding viewers to keep focused on life’s final goal line: heaven. Using a locker room as a backdrop, Coach Holtz reminds viewers of the importance of doing God’s will, loving others, prayer, discipline, gaining strength through God’s word and receiving the sacraments.
And when we “fumble due to sin,” the retired coach says, the sacrament of confession “puts us back on the field.”
The Holtz ad aired in various markets and programming throughout the United States and reached an estimated 70 million households. Peterson said he wrote the spot more than a year ago and, “by God’s grace,” met Holtz by accident at Los Angeles International Airport and invited him to star in the ad. After Holtz agreed, CCH’s financial supporters were excited by the ad and contributed the needed funds in just a few days.
Although quantifiable numbers are not yet available on its impact, anecdotally the response has been good. Commented Peterson, “People are ecstatic about it.”
He shared a variety of emails from viewers who contacted him through the CCH website, including this pair:
“Although I am not a Catholic, I am thrilled and encouraged by the ‘Catholics Come Home’ commercials. Thank you for putting religion in the forefront. For years I abandoned my faith before finding a church home that made me feel like I was home. With everything going on in today’s society, faith is more important than ever. Thank you for your campaign. It is appreciated by Catholics and Protestants alike.” — Tina
“Just a few minutes ago, my son and my 20-year-old daughter came running in and said, ‘Dad … there was just a CCH commercial on ... and it had Lou Holtz in it!!’ Congratulations — and keep up the good work.” — Mark
Not everyone appreciates CCH’s efforts, Peterson concedes. When he was interviewed recently on a Canadian talk-radio station, multiple hostile callers challenged Peterson for bringing religion into what they believed should be purely secular realms, such as televised football games.
One “transgendered” caller said “hateful, vengeful, vulgar” things to him on air, Peterson said, while a second self-described atheist said, “I’m God now. We don’t need your commercials.”
Peterson reflected, “Your heart breaks because these people are so lost. I pray for their salvation. And it is incumbent upon us to speak the truth to them with love, the love that Christ shows to us.”
Fifteen years ago, Peterson was a successful advertising executive living in Arizona when he went on retreat and had a powerful “reversion” experience while praying before the Blessed Sacrament.
He decided afterward to leave the business world and found Catholics Come Home, which works with dioceses to lead people into the Church. Today, it is headquartered in the suburbs of Atlanta.
Peterson believes that what he learned in advertising was preparation for his subsequent mission of evangelization.
“All I learned was for a purpose,” said Peterson, who writes and produces the Catholics Come Home ads himself. ”I’m using my skills to serve the Church.”
CCH is invited into a diocese by its bishop and then airs television ads with a “gentle yet powerful invitation” to explore the Church. Catholics Come Home’s 30-member advisory board includes Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix, Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., and Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb., as well as prominent theologians and Catholic business executives.
Peterson said that, in the past three years, Catholics Come Home has been invited into 35 North American dioceses, with another 20 considering adopting the program. Some dioceses keep statistics in conjunction with introducing his program; he estimates that CCH ads have played a role in more than 350,000 returning to or coming into the Church. In the Archdiocese of St. Louis alone, the CCH campaign contributed to 37,000 “coming home.”
After the advertisements air, according to parish census counts taken by dioceses themselves, Mass attendance has increased an average of 10%. One priest said that the Saturday after Catholics Come Home ads aired in his diocese 16 people came to confession after a long absence, specifically telling him they were prompted by the ads.
The Diocese of Phoenix aired CCH ads in 2008 and noted a 12% increase in Mass attendance and 92,000 Catholics returning to church. Ryan Hanning, the diocese’s director of parish leadership support, observed, “I think that there is nothing out there that can impact a local diocese so quickly as this CCH campaign. It is just continuing to prove the fact that there are a myriad of Catholics just waiting to be invited back home.”
The Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, aired the CCH ads for Lent 2009 and saw Mass attendance increase 18%. “This was a dream come true for the Department for Evangelization,” said Father Eduardo Montemayor, director of the diocese’s Evangelization Department. “I especially liked that it got the wheels of evangelization turning in many parishes.”
Peterson also airs ads through CCH’s sister organization, VirtueMedia.org. He recently completed a 60-second ad featuring Norma McCorvey, the plaintiff “Jane Roe” in the 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the nation’s anti-abortion laws.
In the ad, McCorvey — who joined the Catholic Church in 1998 — shares that her participation in the Roe case was “the biggest mistake of my life” and that she has now dedicated herself to the pro-life cause. The McCorvey ad was scheduled to air on MTV and BET in conjunction with the Roe decision’s 40th anniversary on Jan. 22.
Peterson is also developing a new website for Lent, GoodConfession.com, to help Catholics make better use of the sacrament of penance and develop a deeper spirituality.
Peterson will soon release a book sharing his story, Catholics Come Home … God’s Extraordinary Plan for Your Life, with a forward by Scott Hahn. Peterson said the book “encourages people to learn and share their faith.” The book has been endorsed by many prominent Catholics, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York.
In being an evangelist, Peterson encourages Catholics to “be authentic with the people God puts in your life and show them your love.”
The Catholics Come Home founder summed up his approach by repeating the adage, “People won’t care how much you know until you show how much you care.”
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.