For 20 years, this former ad exec has invited hundreds of thousands back to the Catholic Church, with great success
After a powerful encounter with God on a retreat 20 years ago, Tom Peterson’s life changed. The busy advertising executive discerned that he was being called to use his talents and professional background in media and advertising to serve the Church. Since then, the husband, father and grandfather, currently based in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, has never looked back. Peterson founded and currently directs Catholics Come Home (CCH) and Virtue Media. Zoe Romanowsky spoke to him about what he’s learned about inviting people around the world to come home to the Church.
Tell me more about what inspired you to launch Catholics Come Home.
I went on a retreat a little over 20 years ago that changed my life. Even though I went to Mass every Sunday, I did not put Christ and my faith at the center of my life. After an experience in front of the Eucharist at the retreat, everything changed. I felt God’s loving arms wrap around me and heard in my heart the words “downsize and simplify.” And I knew exactly what those words meant, that I was too busy for God and too busy to help my neighbors because all I cared about was my business career. And while I was a fairly nice guy and went to church on Sundays, I was living in that mediocre, lukewarm area that Christ warns about. I started going to daily Mass, started reading my Bible and the light switch turned on. It was a supreme encounter with the Holy Spirit and I did nothing but show up for the retreat. So all glory to God!
So that led to Catholics Come Home?
That’s the event that tilled the soil. I begged God, “What do you want me to do?” And one night I had two dreams… in one was I was filming some sort of Catholic evangelization commercial, and in the other I was helping a little baby. With the help of a priest, I discerned that God was calling me to use my talents and background to serve the Church in the areas of evangelization and the sanctity of life.
Where is Catholics Come Home now?
Since 2008 alone, we’ve helped about 40 dioceses and archdioceses around the U.S. and Canada, and with smaller campaigns in other countries. We’ve been on national TV in the U.S. five different times and invested millions into evangelization advertising that we call evangomercialsTM. In most cases, in certain dioceses, we’re there during Advent or Lent for a six-week intense media campaign investing anywhere from $70,000 all the way up to several hundreds of thousands. We’ve seen people come back to the Church for as little as $4 per soul. In Phoenix, 92,000 people came back and stayed. In St. Louis, 37,000 returned. In Corpus Christi, the Mass attendance jumped 18%. So in the last 20 years, where we’ve been able to help in a diocese and count the results, we’ve seen Mass attendance increase by 10% on average and a half million people return! And 90% of people say they came home because “you invited me.” So if new evangelization is this easy we need to do it more often in more places and let the Holy Spirit work as He deems appropriate. But we need to show up with our best efforts, our greatest gifts, and our most generous hearts to invite these loved ones back home.
You now have a new web site and ads specifically to help millennials. How is this outreach different?
Our legacy site, CatholicComeHome.org, is for anyone of any age in the general public — we reach out to atheists, agnostic, converts, reverts. That’s been our focus for the past 20 years. But the number of millennials leaving faith across the globe — whether Catholic or other faiths — is astronomical. According to Pew studies, as many as 80% of young people between 18 and 35 leave the church by age 23. We realized that we need to communicate with them in a unique way that they respond to, so we created a new site called CatholicsComeHome.com (instead of “.org”) and produced new “evangomercialsTM” to speak in a language millennials understand. This is a completely new new outreach and we’re currently testing it in Dayton, Ohio, in collaboration with the Archdiocese of Cincinnati and other ministries and apostolates there. We hope and pray the results are strong when we evaluate our efforts in November.
You’ve also launched CCH in nine other languages?
I went to Brazil last year at the invitation of a U.S.-born Jesuit, who now runs one of the largest TV networks in Brazil, and he invited me to share the message of CCH with Brazilians. I also worked with Professor Felipe Aquino, who published our Catholics Come Home book in Portuguese, and appeared with him on his TV show that was broadcast in about 10 countries with Portuguese-speaking populations. What really burned on my heart was that of the 200 million people in Brazil, 80% were baptized Catholic, but only 15% practice. Most are lured away by the secular world or by prosperity Protestant groups who promise riches, and when that doesn’t happen, people leave faith altogether. The Brazilians encouraged me to share CCH worldwide, so since that time we’ve also launched in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, German, French, Polish, Czech, and Tagalog. We hope by next year to be in Vietnamese, Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Arabic. Who doesn’t want to experience this message in their own language? We will manage the web content, making sure it’s authentically Catholic. We love partnering with local diocese and apostolates because they’re essential to engage returnees and converts. Catholics Come Home puts out the invitation, and the local parishes provide the welcome and ongoing formation.
What is unique about what you’re doing?
Two things: We’re using mass media that hits the broad secular audience directly, reaching hundreds of millions of people when we launch a campaign. When we do a national campaign here in the U.S. as many as 200 million see our messages five, six, seven times per person. We’re reaching the secular world in mass numbers through the media they consume. Second, the fruit is unparalleled. It’s rare to find another apostolate reaching so many people, and that has helped between half a million to a million come home to Jesus and the Church, yielding a 10% Mass increase locally. This return of investment is unparalleled. No other apostolate out there, that we know of, has reached so many people so quickly, for such a low cost, helping so many to return to or join the Church. So that’s the advantage we’ve seen, and we give all glory to our merciful Father, and the movement of the Holy Spirit.
What skills from your background have served you best in when it comes to creating and running Catholic evangelical outreaches?
Number one: Fortitude. God has given me the ability to not quit. It can get very disheartening when there is apathy, lack of enthusiasm for evangelization, lack of funding, so many secular challenges, so much busyness, but God has reminded me — and I remind others — that the main reason we exist as the Catholic Church is to evangelize the world! That’s the prime mission of our Church…to “help love souls to heaven.” (…) God has an extraordinary plan for our lives. He wants us to share the good news with others, and to help usher in the springtime of hope that Saint John Paul II talked about. This will help change the world for the better. When we care enough to do that, miracles happen in hundreds of thousands of souls.
In your experience, what is the single biggest obstacle to people returning to the faith?
Lack of an invitation. Like I mentioned, 90% say they came home because “you invited me.” Our Protestant brothers, especially Evangelicals, do a very good job at inviting people to Church and talking about God. We Catholics seem to be a little shy and unprepared to evangelize. Through our book, or web sites, and our TV show, we show people just how easy it is to help people and invite them to come home to the Church. It’s done with love, with humility, and it doesn’t take a theology degree or a priestly collar. God calls us by our baptism to invite our neighbors, friends, etc. home to the Catholic Church.
One of the easiest ways to evangelize is to ask a person: How can I pray for you? Everyone is carrying a great burden. Everyone has a family member who is sick, someone who has a lost job, a child struggling with something. Pray right on the spot with them if you can. By doing so, they see that love from you, which helps open hearts. Everyone appreciates that gesture of love. This is one of the many things we teach.
How else can Catholics be better at sharing the faith with others, especially people who may not familiar with the Catholic Church?
Our prime mission is to reach out to the “lost sheep of Israel” and invite inactive Catholics home to the Church, so while they may not be catechized, they at last understand the basic tenets of our faith. Many people return to the Church through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, i.e. Confession.
For those who are not Catholic, you can invite them to the adoration chapel and just sit with them, and let that small voice of God speak to their heart. So many of us are running around frenetically. We’re over-connected, there is so much noise and commotion, and we don’t take time to sit and let God love and minister to us. So sometimes something as simple as inviting someone to the chapel for some quiet time does wonders. Usually they’ll feel God if they can get rid of some of the clutter. Show love, listen to people’s problems, pray with and for them, share a good Catholic book. This is an entry. The Holy Spirit is at work with little seeds. Sometimes it’s Mass, but a lot of times it is more simple and basic.
Any dream projects or future plans on the horizon?
We’d like to expand our web site into more languages. We’re working on the third season of “Catholics Come Home” on ETWN — the second season is launching September 4 in prime time. We want to delve into the millennial project in a heavier manner to help young people to come home to the Church — it’s the number one lament of parents and grandparents. And finally, I’d like to look into an app to help people better understand their own temperaments, God’s will and plan for their lives, and give them common sense tools to help them on a daily basis. And continue to expand the mission of CCH on the diocesan level in foreign countries, airing on secular airwaves there, to help people around the world as the Holy Spirit has done here in North America. So those are some dreams, and be it God’s will, we’ll go there.
The two things I would ask your readers to pray for are wisdom, that we know God’s will; and fortitude, that we have the energy to do God’s will. We would be blessed by those prayers.
This is the eighth installment in Aleteia’s series on Catholic innovators. Be sure to check out our previous interviews with Michael Matheson Miller, Jenna Guizar, Bishop Christopher Coyne, Brandon Vogt, Lisa Hendey, Margaret Rose Realy, Obl., OSB, and Daniel Mitsui.