It's been quite a few years since David Heffernan warmed a church pew on a regular basis. The Queens, N.Y., native grew up Catholic, but he doesn't attend Mass often.
"Probably a little bit of laziness." he says, "or a little bit of shame. It's hard to come back."
Heffernan is exactly the kind of person a new national ad campaign is targeting: lapsed Catholics.
According to a Pew study, about 10 percent of American adults are former Catholics, with more leaving the church annually than are joining.
Catholics Come Home, a television advertising campaign, has proved successful in 30 regional markets, helping raise attendance at Mass by 10 percent overall and by as much as 18 percent in some areas.
Now, for the first time, it's going national -- and potentially reaching 250 million viewers.
Tom Peterson, president and founder of Catholics Come Home, says of the $3.5 million media blitz, "It's taken us over 15 years as a grassroots effort to raise that money, and about 35,000 families around the United States said I want to invite my neighbors and relatives home."
The 30-second spots will air during some of the most highly rated network shows, including “60 Minutes” and “NCIS.” Through Jan. 8 the warm and fuzzy ads will beckon lapsed Catholics back to the pews no fewer than 460 times. It’s being called the largest evangelization campaign in the Church's 2000-year history.
Dr. John Tantillo, a branding and marketing expert, says it's a good idea.
"Why shouldn't the Catholic Church be doing something?" says Tantillo, author of “People Buy Brands, Not Companies.”
He says there's a difference between marketing a product and selling it. "If you get someone to buy a product they really don't want, that's manipulation, and they they'll never come back again,” he says. But "marketing is about satisfying people's needs."
"People tell us that they didn't have a reason for leaving the church, they just kind of drifted away,” Peterson says. “And when the parishes have asked them why have you come home, over 90 percent of them have said 'because you invited me.'"
There are 65 million Catholics in America. The number of parishes has decreased about 7 percent because of closings and mergers in the last 10 years, but, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, the number of Catholics has kept steady. That is in large part because of the growth of the nation’s Latino population. There has been a 40 percent increase in the number of Latino households registered, and Latinos now make up 29% of Catholics in the U.S.
The Catholic Church currently faces many challenges, including competition from Protestant megachurches, an ever-increasing secular culture in America and the sexual abuse crisis that has shaken its clergy worldwide.
"The way the Catholic Church is right now," I would say they are in some ways too far from the real world. That's how I feel," a woman named Leoni, who said she was from The Netherlands, told Fox News outside St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.
The campaign's first step is to get folks back in the parishes. The second step is to keep them there.
"This is a good start," says Father Jonathan Morris, Parochial Vicar of Old St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York and a Fox News contributor. "But when they come home and come to our churches, we better be able to give them something."
Morris' church in the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan has witnessed a constant growth in its number of young members. He believes there's a hunger and thirst for the church that just needs to be tapped.
"And when we propose in an interesting way and in a welcoming way,” he said, “I think people will come home."