Priests Campaign to Win Back Flock
Paulists Aim for Alienated Catholics

By Michael Levenson
Boston Globe [Massachusetts]
December 23, 2006

Sensing a wave of disaffection among Roman Catholics in Greater Boston, a tiny community of priests on Beacon Hill is waging an all-out campaign to win them back.

This week, the Paulist Center launched a three-year, $800,000 advertising and outreach campaign to attract Catholics who feel disenchanted with church teachings on gay marriage and other social issues, stressing that "everyone is truly welcome" at the center and that "questioning is encouraged."

The center's priests say the pain of the clergy sexual abuse crisis and the closing of parishes in the region has also alienated many Catholics, and they say they want to seize on Christmastime as a moment to bring them back.

The priests have urged their 1,500 members to invite friends, relatives, and co-workers to join them at Mass this week. The center has printed glossy cards with the slogan, "You'll feel right at home."

The campaign represents a bold effort by the center to raise its profile in the region. Founded 61 years ago as an unassuming outpost for downtown office workers to attend Mass, the center has evolved into one of the church's most liberal worship places. In addition to running a food pantry, weekly sit-down supper for the homeless, and religious education classes for children, the center runs special ministries for gays and lesbians and for divorced and separated Catholics.

In crafting the message for their campaign, which began Sunday, the Paulists relied on market research techniques more commonly associated with a political campaign or a retail outlet. This summer, the director of the center, the Rev. John B. Ardis, hired a veteran political strategist, Douglas J. Hattaway, to figure out why members like the center and how to market it to a wider audience.

Over the past several months, Hattaway convened focus groups of new members, longtime members, and staff, asking them what made the center appealing. He surveyed 700 members, asking them to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how willing they would be to reach out to new members. He hired a theologian, Alex Hivoltze-Jimenez, to conduct one-on-one interviews to probe members' church attendance and to learn what qualities drew them to the center.

Hattaway, who was Al Gore's spokesman in 2000 and an adviser to Governor-elect Deval Patrick this year, compiled the results into PowerPoint slides with bullet points.

The key findings show that members like the center because they see it as a home that "offers acceptance, answers questions, feeds, nurtures, and unites an otherwise scattered family."

Members like singing hymns at the 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 priest on leave whom the center hired in February to oversee the campaign.

After batting around ideas, they launched the first ads for the center this week, on public radio, online, and in newspapers, including the Globe, 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 to hand to co-workers and friends. The cards feature a soft-focus image of flickering candles, a schedule for weekend Masses, and an invitation that reads, "Dear Progressive Catholic: Come Home for Christmas!" "We decided we could no longer hide a good thing," Ardis said. "Fewer and fewer Catholics are connecting with the church. They're not necessarily finding another home, and they've, in a sense, somewhat given up. . . . This was the time to really let people know this is a place that welcomes all."

The center has also enlisted one of its members, Robert C. Bordone, a mediator at Harvard Law School, who hopes to set up forums for disaffected and active Catholics to discuss their faith.

Ardis said the $800,000 price tag for the campaign represents a significant investment for the center. The Paulists are financially independent of the Boston Archdiocese, and its the center's members, who fund its annual operating budget of $600,000, will pay for the marketing effort.

Critics of this kind of outreach suggest that the Paulists are sending the wrong message. Gays who enter the church have to act in accordance with Catholic teachings, said C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts.

"It's important to bring people into the church, but to simply conform to the culture or surrender to the prevailing fashion is doing nothing to save these people's souls," Doyle said.

Ardis said that by targeting gays, the center wants to send a message "that the church is not denying them or sending them away."

About 10 to 15 percent of the worshippers who attend the center are gay, he said.

Despite its modern look, the campaign reflects a tradition of evangelism by the Paulists. Founded in 1858 by a New Yorker named Isaac Hecker, the order of priests was motivated by a belief that faith and contemporary culture could coexist in harmony. Using the public lecture circuit and the printing press, the Paulists set about trying to convert Americans to Catholicism.

These days, the Paulists number about 150 priests nationwide, including the five who live at the center on Park Street, in the shadow of the State House.

They are hopeful but still uncertain about results of the campaign. "This marketing campaign is a bit of a test," Hattaway said. "We'll see whether the pews are filled."

Michael Levenson can be reached at


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