WARWICK, R.I. — When Lydia Clark, the 22-year-old daughter of a Presbyterian minister, was confirmed during the Easter vigil at Sts. Rose and Clement Church in Warwick, R.I., last year, she was only one of many non-Catholics who have "come home" at least in part because of contact with the Catholics Come Home organization.
Indeed, although the name Catholics Come Home might sound as if the organization focuses solely on former Catholics, that — as Clark’s story indicates — is not the case.
"The Holy Spirit is using Catholics Come Home to lead home converts, atheists and agnostics, as well as reverts," said Tom Peterson, a former ad executive, who founded the organization after an intense spiritual experience on a men’s retreat in 1997.
It is not surprising that an organization founded by an ad man has become known nationally for its high-quality "evangomercials," including the dazzlingly filmed "Epic" that highlights the Catholic Church’s contributions to civilization. "Our bailiwick is TV, radio and the Internet," Peterson said. "We go out with TV and reach people where they are."
Peterson estimates that Catholics Come Home evangelization campaigns, which are usually conducted at the invitation of a diocese, have reached 250 million viewers during four national and 37 regional media campaigns since 2008.
Based on the findings of more than a dozen dioceses that have done statistical research on the effects of Catholics Come Home, Peterson said, the estimate is that half a million people have come into the Church through the encouragement of its evangelization.
Sometimes, the connection is startlingly clear. Daniel Bui, 27, who teaches history at a charter school in Houston, grew up as an evangelical Christian, but he became disillusioned by the disunity in his parents’ church. Still, he attended a Baptist church in Austin as a University of Texas student. But when he came to Washington to intern at the Family Research Council, he was grappling with what to believe. Catholic interns showed him "Epic," and the impact on him was deep.
"The Catholics Come Home ad awakened in me an emotional and spiritual connection with the Catholic Church," he said, "so I came to understand the Church in personal terms, instead of just as a historical artifact." He came into the Church in 2009.
Another person reached by Catholics Come Home was Harrison Garlick, 28, a law student at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. "I was raised Methodist and charismatic. My first experience of the Catholic Church was when I was at Oral Roberts University," Garlick recalled.
He was studying theology and history when he ran into the "Epic" ad, which made a deep impression.
"My studies on the early Church Fathers revealed to me an ancient Church that was faithful to the apostles and philosophically consistent, and it was the CCH ‘Epic’ commercial that first revealed to me the vitality of that ancient Church in the modern world," he said.
Still not Catholic, Harrison went to Ave Maria University in Florida after Oral Roberts for a master’s degree in theology. His girlfriend, who is now his wife, read up on the ethical teachings of the Church while he immersed himself in theology. About halfway through his studies at Ave Maria, they began RCIA together. They have since been received into the Church.
Like Garlick, Lydia Clark came upon Catholics Come Home during a period of intense thought about religious issues. The minister’s daughter was a student at Gordon College, a liberal arts college in Massachusetts rooted in evangelical Christianity. She was taking a course that touched on St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas but did not go into depth on much between the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. (which mainline Protestant churches accept) and the time of the Reformation more than 1,000 years later. "Okay, I’m wondering what happened in all these other years," she recalled.
Clark began exploring online and found Catholics Come Home.
She found the CCH material "welcoming and friendly, and that made me feel better."
Clark’s boyfriend, whom she plans to marry this summer, was baptized a Catholic but had become a Protestant. Nevertheless, they began to go to Mass.
"I had never been to Mass before, and that was really scary for me," she recalled. "When I read that the Eucharist is the summit of the Mass, it made me realize how Christ-centric the Mass is. While we were still on the fence, we went to talk to Father [Edward] Wilson, the pastor of Sts. Rose and Clement [in Warwick, R.I.], and he was so nice and welcoming and answered all our questions."
"When we started RCIA, we were really nervous and didn’t know anybody. But we realized that they really cared about us. Our journey was mostly doctrinal, but the welcoming ads and welcoming people made us really want to come into the Church."
She did not tell her father she was attending Mass, but he guessed and volunteered that he would not be upset if she became a Catholic. "I was like, ‘Okay, you just saved me a very awkward conversation,’" she said. He was present when she was confirmed at the Easter vigil last year.
The Ripple Effect
There is also a coming-home ripple effect.
Mary Bane had "spent 15 years visiting other churches," but when she heard the Catholics Come Home ad that features famed football coach Lou Holtz, she knew it was time. "When he said, ‘We’re saving a seat for you,’ I knew I could go back to the Church," she said. She was excited for her three teenage sons’ confirmation at this year’s Easter vigil at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Atlantic Highlands, N.J. "My husband and I are just so happy to be back," she said.
Shirley Hill, who had also left the Catholic Church, decided to take the step after seeing material from Catholics Come Home. "It opened my eyes," she said. "Before seeing it, I maybe thought I needed to go back to Church, but I’ll tell you the truth: I was afraid. But Catholics Come Home helped me get past my fears and guilt and do it," she said. Her husband, Tom, who was brought up a Protestant, held back, but he eventually signed up for RCIA and became Catholic last Easter.
Tom Hill, 66, liked his RCIA classes at St. Joseph’s Church in Farmington, Mo., so much that he hammered out a deal with the pastor: He offered to help with meals for the class if he could sit in on RCIA a second year. He did — and became the sponsor of a young man who was riding his motorcycle past the church one day and saw a sign urging people to consider Catholicism.
Madge Winch, who also attends St. Joseph in Farmington, was like Shirley Hill, a fallen-away Catholic wishing to return. "When I kept hearing the Catholics Come Home ads, I realized that I could get squared away and come back," she said. She attended Mass on Saturday evenings, but quit asking her husband, a Baptist, to go.
"One afternoon, he said, ‘Are you going to church?’ I said I was, and he said, ‘Well, I’m coming with you.’ I stopped in my tracks," she recalled. Gene Winch came into the Catholic Church last Easter.
"It’s a miracle, really and truly, for Gene Winch, who was a hard-shelled Baptist, to go to the Catholic Church and be so proud to be Catholic," she said.
‘A Providential Invitation’
All of this is gratifying for Peterson, but he counsels that the numbers are not the whole story: "The Good Shepherd says for us to do this even if we are doing it for one person. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, and we do it because it is the right thing to do."
One strong supporter of Catholics Come Home is Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Spring, Colo., who recently said that "it seems clear to me that the Catholics Come Home campaign has played a significant part in what is proving to be a record number of people preparing to enter the Catholic Church at Easter."
Said Bishop Sheridan, "The beautifully done Catholics Come Home ads have been a providential invitation to the discipleship that Pope Francis has been so forcefully calling the world to embrace."
Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.