Catholics Come Home is announcing a huge nation-wide television campaign this Christmas which will show on a variety of networks and during some specially selected TV shows. They hope to have as many as 1 million Catholics return as a result.
I interviewed Tom Peterson, the founder of Catholics Come Home for my book a few months ago. One of the questions I asked was "what do you know about what happens to people after they return? Do we know many returnees are there a year later?"
I asked because while dioceses that have done Catholics Come Home have clearly experienced a significant rise in attendance (this is measured by a diocesan wide head count shortly after the campaign ends), I could find no information on the long term impact of CCH's campaigns. Tom told me that it was CCH's job to bring people back to the local parish and the parish's job to deal with them after that.
I was told by staff members of one diocese that did CCH that their numbers went up and then were exactly the same 1 year later. It is impossible to tell if all those who returned due to CCH left again (unlikely) or that some who returned left again while some practicing Catholics, untouched by the campaign, also left. But overall, it was a wash.
So much of the long term fruit of CCH depends upon local parish responses and there's the problem. Very few parishes are geared up to even notice, much less really meet those returning, find out where they are and help them make the rest of the journey. Especially at Christmas time when we are used to being flooded with Catholics whose practice is marginal at best. (And of course, how do you measure which of the holiday returnees are impacted by the television ads?)
What CCH's campaign will do is bring additional spiritual seekers at various thresholds (trust, curiosity, openness, etc.) back into the same parish culture that didn't know how to reach them in the first place.
At least we have two months warning. Knowing that many hundreds of thousands of people may well stick their toe in the Catholic ocean this Advent/Christmas, how could we handle this better?
What can we do now, how can we organize to recognize and reach out to returning Catholics and other searching men and women when they walk hesitantly through that door? What could you do personally? What could your parish do?