Priests campaign to win back flock Paulists aim for alienated Catholics
Sensing a wave of disaffection among Roman Catholics in Greater Boston,a tiny community of priests on Beacon Hill is waging an all-outcampaign to win them back.
This week, the Paulist Center launched a three-year, $800,000advertising and outreach campaign to attract Catholics who feeldisenchanted with church teachings on gay marriage and other socialissues, stressing that "everyone is truly welcome" at the center andthat "questioning is encouraged."
The center's priests say thepain of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and the closing of parishes inthe region has also alienated many Catholics, and they say they want toseize on Christmastime as a moment to bring them back.
Thepriests have urged their 1,500 members to invite friends, relatives,and co-workers to join them at Mass this week. The center has printedglossy cards with the slogan, "You'll feel right at home."
Thecampaign represents a bold effort by the center to raise its profile inthe region. Founded 61 years ago as an unassuming outpost for downtownoffice workers to attend Mass, the center has evolved into one of thechurch's most liberal worship places. In addition to running a foodpantry, weekly sit-down supper for the homeless, and religiouseducation classes for children, the center runs special ministries forgays and lesbians and for divorced and separated Catholics.
Incrafting the message for their campaign, which began Sunday, thePaulists relied on market research techniques more commonly associatedwith a political campaign or a retail outlet. This summer, the directorof the center, the Rev. John B. Ardis, hired a veteran politicalstrategist, Douglas J. Hattaway, to figure out why members like thecenter and how to market it to a wider audience.
Over the pastseveral months, Hattaway convened focus groups of new members, longtimemembers, and staff, asking them what made the center appealing. Hesurveyed 700 members, asking them to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 howwilling they would be to reach out to new members. He hired atheologian, Alex Hivoltze-Jimenez, to conduct one-on-one interviews toprobe members' church attendance and to learn what qualities drew themto the center.
Hattaway, who was Al Gore's spokesman in 2000 andan adviser to Governor-elect Deval Patrick this year, compiled theresults into PowerPoint slides with bullet points.
The keyfindings show that members like the center because they see it as ahome that "offers acceptance, answers questions, feeds, nurtures, andunites an otherwise scattered family." Members like singing hymns atthe center, where lyrics are projected onto a wall behind the altar.And they like the focus on helping the poor.
About a month ago,Hattaway presented the findings to Ardis and Robert J. Bowers, a prieston leave whom the center hired in February to oversee the campaign.
After batting around ideas, they launched the first ads for the centerthis week, on public radio, online, and in newspapers, including theGlobe, the Boston Metro, and Bay Windows, a gay and lesbian newspaper.
They also produced a 16-minute promotional DVD and 1,000 cards,similar to the ones distributed at political rallies, for members tohand to co-workers and friends. The cards feature a soft-focus image offlickering candles, a schedule for weekend Masses, and an invitationthat reads, "Dear Progressive Catholic: Come Home for Christmas!"
"Wedecided we could no longer hide a good thing," Ardis said. "Fewer andfewer Catholics are connecting with the church. They're not necessarilyfinding another home, and they've, in a sense, somewhat given up. . . .This was the time to really let people know this is a place thatwelcomes all."
The center has also enlisted one of its members,Robert C. Bordone, a mediator at Harvard Law School, who hopes to setup forums for disaffected and active Catholics to discuss their faith.
Ardissaid the $800,000 price tag for the campaign represents a significantinvestment for the center. The Paulists are financially independent ofthe Boston Archdiocese, and its the center's members, who fund itsannual operating budget of $600,000, will pay for the marketing effort.
Criticsof this kind of outreach suggest that the Paulists are sending thewrong message. Gays who enter the church have to act in accordance withCatholic teachings, said C.J. Doyle, executive director of the CatholicAction League of Massachusetts.
"It's important to bring peopleinto the church, but to simply conform to the culture or surrender tothe prevailing fashion is doing nothing to save these people's souls,"Doyle said.
Ardis said that by targeting gays, the center wantsto send a message "that the church is not denying them or sending themaway." About 10 to 15 percent of the worshippers who attend the centerare gay, he said.
Despite its modern look, the campaign reflectsa tradition of evangelism by the Paulists. Founded in 1858 by a NewYorker named Isaac Hecker, the order of priests was motivated by abelief that faith and contemporary culture could coexist in harmony.Using the public lecture circuit and the printing press, the Paulistsset about trying to convert Americans to Catholicism.
These days,the Paulists number about 150 priests nationwide, including the fivewho live at the center on Park Street, in the shadow of the State House.
Theyare hopeful but still uncertain about results of the campaign. "Thismarketing campaign is a bit of a test," Hattaway said. "We'll seewhether the pews are filled."
Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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