Stations of the cross
St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church hosted ...
As the sun rose and fog cleared at St. Agnes Catholic Church in North Naples, reports of a resurrection in religious faith this Easter mirrored the celebration of Jesus.
With an in-your-face, make-you-feel-guilty advertising campaign called Catholics Come Home, Roman Catholicism packed the pews with a marketing venture that would make Coca-Cola envious.
Rev. Robert J. Kantor, priest and administrator at St. Agnes Church in North Naples, said the campaign, geared toward bringing people back to church, is seeing results. He said the Easter Sunday sunrise service had a 20 percent increase in attendance.
“Maybe we put our faith in a box and just pull it out and dust it off a couple times a year,” Kantor said during his first Mass on Sunday.
Such twice-a-year Catholics — as some call those who attend Mass on Christmas and Easter — were joined by the weekly churchgoers and a new group — the lost souls who found their way home.
Jo-Ann Lewis, of Naples, is of the latter. Lewis attended Catholic elementary and high school and then left the church for 40 years.
“I just drifted away,” she said. “When I was young (the church taught about) the things you couldn’t do. It was more authoritarian.”
A newspaper ad several months ago for Catholics Come Home piqued her interest.
The non-profit organization is based in a suburb of Atlanta, Ga. and initiated a media blitz in Southwest Florida, as well as in Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle and other cities. The commercials are airing during prime time TV shows and ads are appearing in newspapers and on the radio. Nearly $200,000 is being spent throughout the Diocese of Venice, which oversees parishes in Naples, Bonita Springs, Fort Myers and the rest of Southwest Florida, according to Catholics Come Home founder Tom Peterson. The funds are donated by parishioners and other supporters of the group’s efforts, he said.
Peterson, a self-proclaimed “part-time Catholic,” had a spiritual awakening before forming Catholics Come Home in 1997.
“We’re calling people back to the largest family reunion,” Peterson said.
The Roman Catholic Church has 1.2 billion followers around the globe. Worldwide sexual abuse scandals involving priests and children along with revelations that the church tried to cover up the crimes have left some Catholics questioning their faith.
One in 10 Americans who were born and raised in the faith have left the Catholic Church — more than 22 million people, according to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, .
“People who are coming home say they didn’t have a reason to leave,” Peterson said. “It was just secular life got in the way.”
Churches, including St. Williams Church of North Naples, are holding classes as part of the campaign to reintroduce people. Attendees discuss why they left the faith and how to reconcile some of their conflicts.
Kantor said there are many people who have returned to St. Agnes in particular need of addressing marriage issues caused by divorce and remarriage.
Although it can be difficult to track how many Catholics are returning to the church due to the advertising, Peterson said he’s convinced his organization is bringing more people into the parishes.
“The message is positive and production and quality of the commercials is first class,” Kantor said. “I think it can’t help but make an impact. This kind of advertising reminds them of the beauty, richness and value of what they left,” Kantor said.
The commercials also give regular parishioners a sense of pride in their faith, he said.
The St. Agnes sunrise service attendance increased from about 1,500 last year to 1,800 this year. The campaign, as well as a growing church that is only a few years old, are likely the cause, Kantor said.
If Easter had fallen during the height of tourist season, two churches would be needed, said an usher during a 9 a.m. Mass that looked to double the size of the sunrise service.
“Hopefully we are changed and it is for the better,” Kantor said while standing in front of a Catholics Come Home poster inside the church at a late Sunday morning mass. The poster read: “All are welcome.”
Kantor said, “Hopefully people find this a place they feel at home.”