Phoenix, March 27, 2009 - Maybe TV isn't so bad after all.
An estimated 92,000 inactive Catholics in the Phoenix Diocese have come back to the church in the last year thanks in large part to a groundbreaking television advertising campaign called Catholics Come Home.
The promotional spots featured people and locations from around the Phoenix Diocese to promote the church during prime-time television. The cornerstone of the campaign, the Catholics Come Home Web site, addresses often misunderstood aspects of the faith.
"For those who had fallen away from the practice of their faith, it let them know that we want them to come home," Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted said.
The commercials, which ran during Lent in 2008, detail the good works of the Catholic Church throughout history. They also offer real-life testimonials of local fallen-away Catholics explaining what turned them away and what drew them back.
"Phoenix was supposed to be this quiet little test," said Tom Peterson, a former resident of Phoenix who is president and founder of Catholics Come Home, which is now based in Georgia.
"Word went worldwide as soon as you launched," he said in an interview with the Phoenix diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Sun.
More than half a million different visitors from all 50 states and 80 countries have visited the Web site catholicscomehome.com since the spots first aired.
The response was so positive that other dioceses around the country are looking to Phoenix for ideas on bringing Catholics back to the church.
The Diocese of Corpus Christi in Texas recently launched different versions of the television spots in English and Spanish. Each parish supplemented the commercials at Ash Wednesday services with a brochure for everyone answering common faith-related questions and listing Mass times and ministries.
The Catholics Come Home spots will appear in more than a dozen other dioceses around the country later in 2009 or early 2010. By the time Advent rolls around in 2010, organizers say they'll go national on major networks.
"Our family is made up of every race," begins the longest of the spots. "We are young and old, rich and poor, men and women, sinners and saints."
The two-minute ad highlights the vital part the Catholic Church has played in establishing hospitals, orphanages and schools in addition to its role in science, marriage, family life, Scripture and sacraments.
"If you've been away from the Catholic Church, we invite you to take another look," the announcer says toward the end. "We are Catholic; welcome home."
Another two-minute ad shows men and women alone watching the best and the worst scenes from their lives play back before them on an old movie reel.
The final ad that aired -- Peterson has dozens more like it ready to go -- featured snippets of testimonials about why Catholics left the church and what they found upon their return.
Peterson said the Catholics Come Home campaign has "the potential of re-Christianizing our society and even catechizing the world."
A lot of pro bono production, nearly $1 million from various donors and foundations, and a grant from the Catholic Community Foundation helped put the ads on the air.
The Diocese of Phoenix has witnessed increased interest in the church, which leaders are attributing to last year's campaign.
"It's exciting to see the fruits that continue to grow from this," said Ryan Hanning, coordinator of adult evangelization for the diocese. According to Hanning, a number of the faithful have found a renewed passion for the church, while fallen-away Catholics rejoined parish life.
Hanning worked closely with Peterson on the Catholics Come Home campaign and ensured that parish leaders, especially those in faith formation, were ready to welcome back Catholics and resolve sacramental and doctrinal issues. More than 25 parishes created programs to welcome Catholics back to the church.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Tempe was one of them. It showed a video before Easter Masses and held a six-week program for returning Catholics.
"The commercials helped (fallen-away Catholics) realize that they were missing something in their lives," said Father John Bonavitacola, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. He noticed that Catholics who had grown lax in their faith or who felt hurt by the church, or who had divorced and remarried, returned. Many had their marriage validated in the church while others joined for the first time.
Six months after the media campaign ended, a comprehensive analysis of its impact revealed a 22 percent increase in Mass attendance at nine sample parishes. Throughout the diocese, the average increased Mass attendance -- returned and new Catholics -- was 12 percent. That's despite a flat population growth in the diocese during that period.
"Wherever they've been, they can come back home. It's a message that resonates," Hanning said. "I never thought I'd have thousands of Catholics calling and e-mailing me and saying, 'I'm proud to be Catholic and I want to help others.'"
Two days after Pope Benedict XVI warned that more condoms would facilitate the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa, the world's condom-promoters and their political allies are leading an all-out attack on the pope and on the Catholic Church.
However, at the same time, Catholic and other conservative leaders are defending the pope, pointing out that not only is science on his side, but also that in his remarks the pope was showing a welcome deference to the pro-family culture of Africa, which is opposed to the population control agenda promoted in the continent by many Western "aid" agencies.
The day after the Pope made his comments, the heavily anti-Catholic government of Spain announced it would be sending over a million condoms to African countries. The Spanish health ministry said in a statement Wednesday, "Condoms have been demonstrated to be a necessary element in prevention policies and an efficient barrier against the virus."
The French foreign ministry called the comments a "threat to public health policies and the duty to protect human life," while the Dutch development minister said it was "extremely harmful" and that "the pope is making matters worse." Former French Prime Minister Alain Juppé, interviewed Wednesday by France Culture, said, "This pope is becoming a real problem."
"To go say in Africa that condoms increase the danger of AIDS is, first of all an untruth and it is unacceptable for the African people and for everyone else," Juppé said.
Aurelio Mancuso of the Italian group Arcigay said, "While across the world and especially in Africa thousands are dying of Aids, Ratzinger [Benedict] can think of nothing better to say than repeat the Vatican's position on condoms.
"We are now beyond the paradox, this view simply contributes to the spread of the disease and especially in Africa where there are not enough medical resources to treat patients."
The Telegraph also quoted Lisa Power of Britain's homosexualist activist group, the Terrence Higgins Trust, who said, "We deeply regret the continued misinformation around condoms, which remain the most effective way of preventing the spread of HIV.
"Both abstinence and condoms are valid weapons in the fight against HIV, but unfortunately abstinence has a far higher failure rate."
Rebecca Hodes, of the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, told the Guardian that the Pope's "opposition to condoms conveys that religious dogma is more important to him than the lives of Africans."
However, while Pope Benedict in his remarks was merely reiterating Catholic teaching, backed up by research showing that the failure rate of condoms and the promiscuity they encourage significantly contribute to the spread of AIDS, defenders of the pope have observed that the Holy Father's remarks had a further inspiration, beyond the science of the matter.
Franciscan Father Maurizio Faggioni has suggested that the pope was in part responding to a grave cultural threat to Africa posed by the condom philosophy and the international population control movement that promotes it. Faggioni, who has advised the Vatican on sexual morality issues, told Catholic News Service that the pope sees condom campaigns as a question of "cultural violence," especially in Africa, where there has never been a "contraceptive mentality."
This opinion is supported by local African AIDS activists who regularly complain that AIDS sufferers in their countries are being used in a massive international campaign both to reduce African populations and undermine traditional African family values.
Martin Ssempa, a key player in Uganda's highly successful abstinence and faithfulness anti-AIDS programmes, told LifeSiteNews.com that the hostility towards the Catholic Church of the international AIDS organisations is matched only by their hatred of traditional Christian sexual morality.
Ssempa, a Protestant minister, said in October 2007, during a previous media-sponsored wave of furor over the Catholic Church's opposition to condoms, "Condoms have not reduced HIV-AIDS anywhere in the world ... Higher condoms [rates] across Africa have resulted in higher HIV."
In 2008, Sam L. Ruteikara, the co-chair of Uganda's AIDS-prevention Committee wrote in the Washington Post that in the fight against AIDS, "profiteering has trumped prevention."
"AIDS is no longer simply a disease," he said, "it has become a multibillion-dollar industry ... Meanwhile, effective HIV prevention methods, such as urging Africans to stick to one partner, don't qualify for lucrative universal-access status."
Rutkara said, "Our wisdom about our own culture is ignored. Telling men and women to keep sex sacred - to save sex for marriage and then remain faithful - is telling them to love one another deeply with their whole hearts. Most HIV infections in Africa are spread by sex outside of marriage: casual sex and infidelity. The solution is faithful love."
In a meeting with the press on board the plane taking him to Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, on Tuesday, the pope set off a firestorm after responding to the assertion that the Catholic Church's position on combating AIDS is considered "unrealistic and ineffective."
"I would say the opposite," Benedict said. "I think that the reality that is most effective, the most present and the strongest in the fight against AIDS, is precisely that of the Catholic Church, with its programs and its diversity."
"I would say that one cannot overcome this problem of AIDS only with money -- which is important, but if there is no soul, no people who know how to use it, (money) doesn't help," he said.
"One cannot overcome the problem with the distribution of condoms. On the contrary, they increase the problem."
Benedict said that combating the spread of AIDS requires "first, a humanization of sexuality, that is, a spiritual human renewal that brings with it a new way of behaving with one another. Second, a true friendship even and especially with those who suffer, and a willingness to make personal sacrifices and to be with the suffering."
Catholic Church in India has petitioned the country's Supreme Court to protect Christian lives and property in Orissa state.
Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar told the Asian church news agency UCA News Sept. 2 that the church decided to approach the highest court "as we are not getting sufficient response" from the Orissa government.
The archbishop, whose archdiocese is in Orissa, said the church wants the court to order federal authorities to protect Christians in the eastern state.
"We want some clear help and response" from the government, added the archbishop, who has stayed in New Delhi since the violence broke out in Orissa Aug. 24.
The church petition seeks the deployment of sufficient riot police in villages where Hindu extremists continue to destroy churches and Christian buildings. It also demands that the Central Bureau of Investigation, the country's criminal investigative agency, probe the violence.
In addition to its regular judicial duties, the Supreme Court of India can take action if individuals file a petition with a question of public importance that needs the court's involvement.
Archbishop Cheenath said the attacks have now decreased, since "there are no more targets to attack." But in several villages Christians reportedly have been forced to sign documents declaring they are Hindus and have been asked to destroy their churches and other Christians' houses afterward.
The archbishop told UCA News all Christian institutions have been destroyed in the Kandhamal district, the worst-hit area of Orissa. The violence began there after suspected Maoists gunned down an 85-year-old Hindu religious leader and five associates Aug. 23. Hindu radicals targeted Christians, claiming they had masterminded the killings.
A probe into the situation by the Central Bureau of Investigation is necessary because "there seems a hide-and-seek game" in the whole matter, especially regarding the Hindu leader's killing, said the archbishop.
"Let the truth come out and the guilty be punished," he said.
The state government has ordered a judicial probe, but the archbishop said the church suspects this report would be biased against Christians.
The church also wants India's National Human Rights Commission to study the Orissa violence. He recalled that the commission went to Orissa when Christians were attacked in Kandhamal last Christmas, but the state administration did not allow commission members to visit the affected villages.
Archbishop Cheenath said the church petition also asks that individuals be compensated for their losses, such as $9,000 for fully destroyed homes and half that amount for damaged homes.
He welcomed media reports about the prime minister promising relief packages and compensation from his emergency fund for the Orissa victims.
"But all this should be implemented in reality," he added.
Archbishop Cheenath said he sees the attacks as the fruit of "hate campaigns" Hindu radical groups have carried out in Orissa for the past 25 to 30 years. People "are poisoned and have lost their capacity to think correctly," he added.
Political parties allowed the radical groups to grow for the parties' vested interests, and "now they can't control them," he said.
According to the latest figures, there are at least 6,000 people in the refugee camps, and 5,000 hiding in the forests around Kandhamal, but the number of refugees could soon reach 10,000. Today, in Bhubaneswar, a protest demonstration is planned in front of the state government headquarters in Orissa, organized by the activists of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), following the closing of Catholic schools yesterday all over India. About 25,000 institutes closed their doors, while the students and teachers marched peacefully through the streets of the country calling for an end to the violence against Christians.
Meanwhile, the number of victims of the violence continues to increase: "We have received authentic information that the death toll is 100", says Dr Sajan George, national president of the GCIC, "and more butchered bodies and burnt corpes are being found". The Christian activist is also calling for the resignation of the entire government of Orissa, which is incapable of stopping the massacres against the Christian community. He provides an example: "In Bakingia, two families of seven Christians - Daniel Naik and Michael Naik and their families - were tortured and killed, their bodies were found with their heads pulped and smashed, they were recognised by their clothes. Bakingia is about 8 kilometers from Raikia police station".
The decision to close all of the Catholic schools yesterday and call for demonstrations - although peaceful - has raised attention, with serious new accusations being issued by the Hindu side. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the leading opposition party in India, heavily influenced by the fundamentalists, has condemned yesterday's school strike and accused the Catholics of "forcing non-Christian students to participate in the protest marches". Some institutes used "coercive means" - according to the BJP - against the "non-Christians, who were obliged to march with their classmates".
Meanwhile, raids continue outside of Orissa as well. Yesterday, in Madhya Pradesh, fanatics attacked five schools and a church, in retaliation against the closing of the buildings. The attacks took place in the districts of Gwaliar (three schools and a church) and Barwani (two schools), and only the swift intervention of the police was able to prevent serious damage to the buildings, or new victims. Security forces have, on the other hand, blocked a peaceful demonstration of the students from the school of St. Francis, for unspecified reasons of "public safety", although they were informed about the demonstration beforehand.
The Indian bishop of Vasai, Thomas Dabre, a member of the pontifical council for interreligious dialogue, confirms instead the "total paralysis" in the activity of the schools of his diocese. "Thousands of young people", the prelate emphasizes, "ended their march in front of the buildings of the bishop's residence. I told them to promote interreligious dialogue, and to and trust themselves completely to the protection of the Virgin Mary".
Pope Benedict XVI said that the mission of the Church-- to bring Christ to all mankind-- should never be identified with any nation or culture.
In his remarks to the crowd gathered in the courtyard of the apostolic palace at Castel Gandolfo, the Holy Father reflected on the day's Gospel reading, with Peter's profession of faith and Jesus' reply: "You are Peter and upon this rock I shall build my Church."
"This is the first time that Jesus speaks of the Church," the Pope observed. As he gives Peter the commission to lead the Church, Jesus also indicates the purpose of the Petrine ministry: to build up the Church by protecting against division-- by serving as the one rock upon which the Christian community is founded.
The Pope told his audience that he felt the weight of this responsibility, and asked for the prayers of the faithful to help him with his duties. He underlined the importance of bringing Christ's offer of salvation to all of the world's people. "What blessings mankind would receive by accepting this offer, which brings joy and peace," the Pope said.
After leading the Angelus prayer, the Holy Father turned his attention to the international scene, remarking sadly on "a deeply worrisome rise in tensions" and a "progressive deterioration in the climate of trust and cooperation among nations." In what appeared to be a reference to the violence in South Ossetia he warned against a new rise of nationalism, reminding his audience that nationalism has produced "tragic consequences" in other cases.
Despite the dangers of current world events, the Pope said, "we must not give in to pessimism!" He urged recognition of "the moral force of law," and "fair and transparent negotiations" to resolve international tensions.
Above all, the Pope said, world leaders must resist "the temptation to meet new situations with old systems." To underscore his meaning he added: "Violence must be repudiated."