Cardinal Sean O'Malley kicked off a massive ad campaign Wednesday to draw Boston's vast population of lapsed Catholics back to the church by inviting them to "come home."
The Boston Archdiocese officially launched "Catholics Come Home" on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and the start of the holy season that ends with Easter Sunday. The message in the coming flurry of 2,500 radio and TV ads is simple, O'Malley said: "We miss you and our worshipping communities are diminished because of your absence."
It might be a tough sell in Boston, the center of a nationwide clergy sex abuse scandal that saw abusive priests shuffled between parishes while their crimes were kept secret.
Nicole Frampton, a 39-year-old mother of five from Topsfield, calls herself "very proud" to be Catholic but hasn't been inside a Catholic church in years. Frampton said she believes the church has regressive views on women and resents the burdens of "Catholic guilt." She left feeling like there was nothing for her at her local parish.
She admits, though, that the call to "come home" tugs at her.
"I could see how that could really draw somebody in, especially with all the stuff that's going on right now in the world, in people's finances and just the instability," she said. "I still don't know if it's going to have any effect on me whatsoever. I highly doubt it."
The archdiocese's ad campaign in partnership with the Georgia-based Catholics Come Home organization started Monday and runs seven weeks until Easter, on April 24.
The Boston Archdiocese counts more than 1.8 million Catholics, but only about 16 percent of them _ roughly 287,000 _ attend Mass weekly. The national weekly attendance rate for Catholics is about 33 percent.
O'Malley said he worries the archdiocese's past could affect people's willingness to come back, but that can't stop the church from sharing its redemptive message.
"Although the sexual abuse crisis has been such a painful episode for all of us, still we believe in the Catholic Church and we believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ," O'Malley said.
Catholics Come Home founder Tom Peterson said their research indicates people more often drift from church than leave it in disgust or anger. Life gets busy and church falls off the list of priorities, he said.
But Peterson said his group's work has shown that many people are open to a return, they just need to be asked back.
Boston is among 30 dioceses that will have run the Catholic Come Home commercials by the end of Lent since the program went national in 2008. Other dioceses taking part in the campaign for the first time during this Easter season include New Orleans, Venice, Fla., and Manchester, N.H., Peterson said.
Dioceses take a count before and after the program to measure any effect on attendance. In the dozen or so dioceses that have been measured, attendance has increased by an average of about 10 percent, with 92,000 people returning in Phoenix the largest response, Peterson said.
The $600,000 campaign was fully funded by parishioner donations and will run on all the major networks, after Bruins and Celtics games and on cable stations including FOX News and MSNBC. The average viewer will see the ads 20 times, church officials estimate.
One ad, for instance, has a montage of people and places through different times and presents the church as a steady, centuries-old source of hope and charity.
"In this world filled with chaos, hardship and pain, it's comforting to know that some things remain consistent, true and strong," it says. "If you've been away from the Catholic church, we invite you to take another look."
The archdiocese has offered training for parishes on how to welcome back parishioners. At St. Albert the Great Parish in Weymouth, parishioners kicked off Ash Wednesday with a sort of 24-hour "open house" where people were invited to stop in for ashes or confession.
"The thrust of the message was that wherever your journey has been, it doesn't matter. We just want you to come and talk," said the parish priest, the Rev. Paul Soper.
Thomas Groome, a professor of theology and religious education at Boston College, said the campaign can't work if people come back to subpar preaching, a narrow focus on divisive social issues and anything less than an unconditional welcome.
"If the welcome-home program could put on the front burner the deep, life-giving values of Catholic-Christian faith, then I think it will succeed and will deserve to succeed," he said.