The big, bold newspaper ads speak to lapsed church-goers like the voice of God.
"An invitation to separated Catholics," announces one ad. "If you have had a divorce, that is no reason to stay away from Church. If you have had an abortion, that is no reason to stay away from Church (but it is a good reason for Confession).
"If you have remarried after divorce, you are not excommunicated," emphasizes the ad, placed in local papers by St. Mary's Catholic Church in Annapolis.
The parish is one of at least four Roman Catholic churches in the county trying to lure prodigal Christians back to church through the newspapers.
"These are people who left the church for one reason or another, grown-up baby boomers who are often in their 40s, and they're looking for something," says Father John Murray, priest at St. Mary's. "If we can encourage them to return, they find church and God in the same place they found him as a child."
Encourage is what the churches hope to do, with the ads and with special sessions during Easter season to answer questions from members angry or confused about some aspect of the church.
St. Mary's, along with Holy Trinity in Glen Burnie, St. John the Evangelist in Severna Park and St. Andrew by the Bay in Cape St. Claire, hopes to give people an emotional absolution from past hurts.
"They haven't left the church, many feel. They think the church left them for one reason or another," explains John Boscoe, a deacon at Holy Trinity. "We want totry to help them work their way back to church, but we also want to accept them where they are."
Church members quit on their faith, or at least the church-going, for all sorts of reasons, says Father Frank C. McFadden, priest at St. John the Evangelist.
Some are angryat a priest or nun from their past. Others find the church too liberal. Others think it's too conservative on social justice and women's issues, he says.
And many believe, incorrectly, that if they were divorced they cannot return to the fold, says Murray.
"Clearly, the majority have left because a first marriage failed, and they're in a second marriage and didn't think anything could be done. Most of them are surprised that something can be done to get them to full Communion again," he says. Often, the first marriage can be annulled.
Adds Boscoe, "We'd like to discuss things with them. We're open to discussion. We want to sit down and discuss their problem -- whatever itwas -- and try to approach it from their point of view."
The concept of advertising for stray Catholics isn't unique to the county, says Murray.
"This new emphasis on evangelization, kind of the spur,dates to the early '70s," he says.
For nearly a decade, the Archdiocese of New York set the example by conducting a full-blown MadisonAvenue advertising campaign targeted at disenfranchised Catholics.
"Come Home for Christmas," "We Miss You and We Want You Back," and other welcoming slogans have appeared in large ads in the New York Times and on TV and radio spots, Murray says.
Some pastors even write personal letters to lapsed members asking to meet with them.
In Arundel, Murray started the ad campaign three years ago, and it's worked better than he dreamed.
St. Mary's has held its Lenten welcome-back sessions during the past month, and the response has been overwhelming, Murray says. About 50 people attended the five discussions. Another dozen people called to request personal meetings with the priest.
The Thursday night sessions covered different areas of the faith: Mass, marriage and annulments, other sacraments, scripture, and sin and forgiveness -- "more about forgiveness than about sin" Murraysays.
The church also this year ran ads of parishioners talking about their faith, along with their pictures.
"One professor at theUniversity of Maryland did one ad, and this way it wasn't just me asking them back. It was people they'd go to church with," Murray explains.
St. Mary's is adding one more special touch to their welcome this spring. The church is holding a special dinner April 27 for Catholics who want to come back to church.
"We want to welcome you into our parish family in the same way most families welcome a returning member -- with a meal," Murray says.
"It takes a lot of courage.Once a Catholic, always a Catholic. But it's so worthwhile, seeing people who'd been hurt for so long finally healed."