Friday, December 28, 2012

Pittsburgh diocese eyes ads to bring Catholics back to flock

Catholic leaders in Pittsburgh are considering whether to join a grassroots evangelical movement to bring people back to church. 

Catholics Come Home, a lay nonprofit formed in 1998 and based in Roswell, Ga., develops and broadcasts “evangomercial” advertisements that invite inactive Catholics to return to the faith. It is funded entirely by donations.

“The timing is getting very good,” said Tom Peterson, founder of Catholics Come Home. “Pittsburgh has a great diocese. Catholicism is in Pittsburgh‘s DNA.”

Peterson said the organization has “talked to Pittsburgh over the years.” 

The Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for Bishop David Zubik, said any movement to pursue participation is “only in the planning stage,” and a committee is set to investigate the “when, where and why.”

The Diocese of Greensburg has not had any discussions with Catholics Come Home, spokesman Jerry Zufelt said.

From 2000 to 2010, church membership among Catholics in Allegheny County declined by 27.2 percent, according to the State College-based Association of Religion Data Archives. 

The Pittsburgh diocese reports a drop in Catholic population from more than 800,000 20 years ago to about 675,000 today.

Nationally, membership in Catholic churches declined 5 percent between 2000 and 2010. 

“Pittsburgh is not alone,” said Peterson. “There are issues all over the world. All Christian faiths are struggling to keep the attention of members distracted by the business of the world.” 

Joseph Domencic, 39, of Churchill, who attended Christmas morning Mass in St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland, said he attends Mass “maybe once or twice a month” because there are “certain policies of the church that I disagree with.”

“I want to belong to a faithful community, but I have my own personal struggles with my faith,” he said.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington, said the decline in church membership involves two sets of people: Catholics who simply don‘t attend church and those who no longer identify as Catholic.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, although 31 percent of Americans were raised in the Catholic faith, fewer than 24 percent describe themselves as Catholic today.

Reese said the most common reason people give for leaving the church is because “their spiritual needs are not being met in the Catholic Church, and they like the worship service in their new church.”

“The Catholic Church had the attitude hundreds of years ago that we were the true church. If you want to go to heaven, you come to us. We were the monopoly on salvation. Like any monopoly, we got lazy,” he said.

“The reasons they‘re leaving is because they‘re bored with the worship service. If you want to attract people to the church, you need good music, a good preacher, a sense of community and programs for kids.”

That solution is easier said than done, he said.

“The Vatican allows very little flexibility in how the liturgy is done,” he said. “There are priests who are not well-trained in doing the liturgy. Some are thrown in very shortly after ordination because there are so few priests.”

Some churches, particularly in the North Hills and South Hills, have found success in bringing young parishioners back into the fold. They‘ve used Facebook to organize Bible groups and held meetings in bars and restaurants to establish the feeling of a congregation as “home.”

Members of St. Bernard parish in Mt. Lebanon visit wineries, discuss current events with guest speakers at coffee shops and attend sporting events together.

Dan Zitelli, 36, of Squirrel Hill attended the Christmas Mass in St. Paul with his wife, Trina, 40, and their 2-year-old daughter “because I wanted to be here with my family on the holiday, but coming here on a regular basis, it‘s not happening.”

Zitelli said that he was born and raised Catholic, even attended 12 years of Catholic school, but said he doesn‘t agree with everything the church represents.

“You learn religion, along with mathematics and social studies, and then you get out into the real world, and you realize it‘s not like that,” Zitelli said.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati joined Catholics Come Home this month. 

Nearly 1,600 commercials will air in English and Spanish throughout the Cincinnati TV market, with an additional 1,500 airing in the Dayton and Lima, Ohio, markets.

Michael Vanderburgh, director of the archdiocese‘s Department of Stewardship, said it has recorded a 25 percent drop in church attendance in the past 15 years, though “the vast majority of people still refer to themselves as Catholic.”

“They‘re still registered as parishioners. They might come at Christmas or Easter,” he said. “When there‘s a marriage or a baptism or a death, they‘re back.”