METUCHEN, N.J. – This Lent as people drive through the Diocese of Metuchen, it is likely they will see a billboard with this invitation, “Lent: A good time to come home.”
Through a pilot program in five parishes, the Diocese of Metuchen is inviting Catholics back to the church by posting billboards and handing out invitations door to door as a way to bring nonpracticing Catholics in the diocese back to a relationship with God.
Titled “Inviting All Catholics Home,” Jodie D’Angiolillo, director of the diocesan Office of Evangelization, said Lent “was chosen for the program because it is traditionally a time of returning and conversion; it is also an ideal time in terms of the liturgical cycle.”
The diocese’s development of the program was inspired by www.catholicscomehome.org, a nonprofit organization that airs TV commercials in different dioceses around the country either during Advent or Lent, D’Angiolillo said.
The focus of Metuchen’s program is a weekly parish mission scheduled to begin the week of March 14. To ensure its success, D’Angiolillo said parishioners from all five parishes were making every effort to invite people to attend, with volunteers distributing invitations in their respective communities.
“If you ask the average Catholic if they know someone who is not practicing their faith, invariably the answer is, ‘Yes.’ So we know that with this program outreach is very important,” she told The Catholic Spirit, Metuchen’s diocesan newspaper.
Parishioners receive invitation cards to pass on to “family members, co-workers, neighbors, as well as others,” D’Angiolillo said.
She noted that the mission event “is not threatening” and won’t require people “to have to sit down in small groups and share their personal insights. The mission consists of a presentation followed by question-and-answers with some fellowship.”
Parishes also were using car magnets, lawn signs and door hangers as other types of invitations. The program has a website that explains the outreach, www.invitingallcatholicshome.com.
D’Angiolillo said a mission is the center of the program because the church traditionally uses missions during Lent to prepare Catholics spiritually for Easter. They consist of a series of preaching events, either on a weekly basis or consecutively for several days during one of the weeks of Lent.
Each of the five parishes participating “Inviting All Catholics Home” planned to host a mission one evening per week during the five weeks of Lent preceding Holy Week, D’Angiolillo said. They will have the same topic and speaker, though one parish will have a Spanish-language mission.
At each parish, the week of April 11, the program is scheduled to conclude with a catechetical or teaching Mass, where signs, symbols and actions performed are explained.
“We want all the parishioners to come and bring someone with them. Invite Catholics or non-Catholics, anyone in search of God and the faith,” she said.
According to the Catholics Come Home website, six months after a media campaign ended in the Diocese of Phoenix, the average increase in Mass attendance – including returned Catholics and new members of the church – was 12 percent, or about 92,000 people, even though population growth in the diocese was flat during that period.
Also, a bilingual Catholics Come Home/Catolicos Regresen campaign in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas, showed a 17.7 percent increase in Mass attendance.
According to Catholics Come Home, the majority of people who responded to a survey said they fell away from the church because of laziness or they had something else to do on Sunday, such as sports, D’Angiolillo said.
“That doesn’t mean there are other people who have other issues who are not responding,” she added. “The key is, what are we in the pews doing about it? Just lamenting that they are not here, or do we care enough to bring them back?”
In the Diocese of Metuchen, according to a recent study, 663,246 Catholics live in the four counties it serves. However, 80 percent or 530,000 are not practicing, she said. In addition, about 42 percent of the total population of those four counties identify themselves as Catholic.
D’Angiolillo said the goal is to implement the invitation program on a diocesan-wide basis.
And the campaign will not end with the mission and catechetical Mass.
“We have to be ready for however many return and sustain them,” she said. “Ongoing formation in the faith will be key to the follow-up planning.”