Evangelization Sunday set for Jan. 23

BRAINTREE -- This Sunday, every Catholic in the Archdiocese of Boston will have the chance to participate in an archdiocesan-wide effort to welcome lapsed Catholics back to the Church.

The first ever Evangelization Sunday will be celebrated in the archdiocese Jan. 23 as an effort to introduce churchgoers to Catholics Come Home, a nationwide program the archdiocese is launching over the coming months to bring lapsed Catholics back to Mass and the practice of the faith.

Evangelization Sunday will include a video homily by Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley and a second collection with all proceeds benefitting Catholics Come Home. Worshipers will also receive pew cards with information about how to welcome fallen-away Catholics back to the Church.

Archdiocese of Boston Secretary for Faith Formation and Evangelization Janet Benestad said Evangelization Sunday is a chance for Cardinal O'Malley to "invite Catholics in the archdiocese to reflect on people they know who have fallen away from the Church and invite them back."

She also called the Sunday "an opportunity for parishioners to examine what they can do."

Catholics Come Home was officially announced by the Archdiocese of Boston one year ago, and will officially launch in the archdiocese with a press conference at a parish on Ash Wednesday, Mar. 9.

Locally, Catholics Come Home will include commercials to air during Lent.

"The hope is that they will touch people's hearts and they will consider coming back to Sunday Mass and the practice of the faith," Benestad said.

She noted that Boston is the first diocese to feature local scenes in their ads.

On Jan. 14, the archdiocese launched a companion website, CatholicsComeHomeBoston.org, that includes resources for parishes to assist them in welcoming back lapsed Catholics, information on returning to the Church and Catholic teaching.

Parishes have already published announcements about the program in their bulletins, and preparation will continue through workshops for Mass ushers and greeters and parish secretaries and receptionists in "receiving people back to the Church well," Benestad said.

Benestad said the archdiocese will have a phone number people can call to ask questions about the Catholic faith.

Nationally, the Catholics Come Home program has been running in eight dioceses and resulted in an increase in weekly Mass attendance. The Diocese of Phoenix saw a 12 percent increase (about 92,000 people) as a result of the program, and in the same span, the area had a roughly zero population growth. The Diocese of Corpus Christi saw a nearly 18 percent increase.

Providence, R.I. is the only other New England diocese currently running the program.

"Everybody who has done it has had success in some sort," Benestad said.

Catholic officials will be launching the Boston version in an archdiocese where weekly Mass attendance is at 17 percent. New England is the most unchurched region in the United States, according to a Gallup poll released in February 2010. The poll revealed that only 29 percent of Massachusetts residents attend a church or synagogue weekly.

Benestad did not give a quantifiable goal that the archdiocese would like to reach to label the initiative as a success.

"For us, a success would be that people return to our parishes," she said. "In the Northeast, so many people are Catholic."

Other programs with a connection to evangelization have been run by the archdiocese over the last few years including ARISE: Together In Christ, a three-year parish-based spiritual renewal program and The Light Is On For You, a weekly confession initiative during Lent and Advent.

Catholics Come Home is being welcomed by the parishes because it makes all Catholics into what God calls them to be -- evangelizers.

"It basically has us doing what we should be best at doing -- inviting," said Msgr. William Fay, pastor of St. Columbkille Parish in Brighton.

Mary Ellen Cassani, religious education coordinator at St. Jerome Parish in Weymouth, said that while the television ads will run for a few weeks, the idea of welcoming should be ongoing.

"We should never let it be on the back burner again," she said. "We are evangelization, and we need to realize that. How we talk and what we do affects each one of us."

Evangelization Sunday, Jan. 23, will serve as a parish-based kick-off to Catholics Come Home and remind Catholics of what they can do to evangelize their lapsed brethren.

"Hopefully they'll get a renewed sense of their obligation as Catholics," Cassani said.