Book Program – The History
Several years ago I asked my team at Dynamic Catholic to ponder this question: If we had to abandon everything we are presently working on and start new projects next year, what new efforts should we turn our energy toward? The only stipulation I gave was that any idea they brought to the table had to have the potential to be a complete game changer for the Catholic Church in America. I told them we would have thirty days to think on it, and then we would meet again to discuss the ideas they had come up with. I wanted us to explore new ways of doing things that would increase our reach and the impact and sustainability of our work.
A month later we met to discuss more than sixty ideas that they had come up with. Most were dismissed quickly by the group as lacking the ability to be a complete game changer. Out of all those ideas we chose three to focus our attention on for the next decade.
The first was the research behind The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic.
The second was developing the dynamic learning systems for each of the Catholic Moments: Baptism; First Reconciliation, First Communion, Confirmation, Marriage Preparation, RCIA, Advent, Lent, and Sunday Mass. We need to figure out an engaging way to teach people about the faith. What we are doing is not working. We need world-class programs in each of these areas.
The third, I must admit, I was more than a little skeptical about. The idea was to pass out free copies of the book Rediscover Catholicism to everyone as they left Christmas Mass. The goal was to reinvigorate Catholics and their parishes, but particularly to make an attempt to reengage disengaged Catholics by inviting them to read a Catholic book.
“How will we pay for the books?” I asked. The team suggested we cover the cost of the pilot out of our operating budget, and if it was successful, in the future we could offer the books to parishes at a very low cost.
Have you ever noticed how full Mass is at Christmas? Thirty-two percent of the people in the pews at Christmas come to church only once or twice a year. Some come at Christmas and Easter; others for Christmas and a wedding or a baptism. The point is, at Christmas they are all there in one place, and it is the only chance we get each year to reengage them as a group. At every other time of year we have to go searching for them one at a time.
Imagine if a business knew that all their previous customers were coming together on the same day in the same place. What would they do with this information? Businesses would pull out all the stops and overcome every obstacle to find ways to reengage those customers.
If three thousand people attend Christmas Masses in your parish, that means 960 are in the once or twice-a-year category. Do you know how difficult it is to get 960 people to come to anything? Imagine how much time, energy, and resources would be required to get 960 once-a-year Catholics to come to your church on a single day. Most parishes simply would not be able to make it happen. It would be that difficult. But once a year they show up of their own accord. Isn’t it time we take full advantage of that opportunity?
Christmas is the best chance we have each year to reengage disengaged Catholics.
“How would this be a game changer?” I asked the team.
“Game changers are usually simple,” a team member said. “You are always talking about how we get hypnotized by complexity when it comes to our faith because there is so much to it. But the truth is, if every Catholic in America read one great Catholic book each year, that would be a game changer. Even if the only thing Dynamic Catholics did over the next ten years was to put a copy of one great book in the hands of every Catholic in America each year, that would be an incredible contribution. But if we could establish a program that allowed parishes to distribute a different great Catholic book each Christmas, if we could make them available for, say, two dollars a copy, they could afford to give everyone a copy. Imagine what would happen if every Catholic in America read just one great Catholic book each year for the rest of their lives. It would be a game changer.”
“How many Catholics read a Catholic book last year?” I asked. The answer shocked me. One percent. That’s right, in 2007 only one percent of American Catholics read a Catholic book.
That Christmas we piloted the program with fifty thousand copies of Rediscover Catholicism, distributed at fifteen parishes. The response was astounding. Here are excerpts from some of the letters we received.
“I’m not sure why I came to church last Christmas. I haven’t been in twenty years. But something drew me. Anyway, on the way out of church I was given a copy of your book Rediscover Catholicism. For the first time in my life Catholicism makes sense to me. Thank you. I have been to church every Sunday since Christmas and all because I was handed a book.”
“My son was given a copy of Rediscover Catholicism on the way out of church last Christmas. He stopped going to church regularly about ten years ago. We were away on vacation and I was amazed to see him reading it the next day. I was even more surprised the following week when he suggested we all go to church and then to brunch. I just want to say thank you. You don’t know how happy it makes a mother to see her son return to church.”
“I go to church every Sunday, but I never really got it. First I went to please my parents and then my wife, but then I received a copy of Rediscover Catholicism as I was walking out of Mass. Wow! I have to say, you really make it so accessible. I have given twelve people a copy of the book already, and I am not done. Thank you for the work you and your team are doing.”
The Dynamic Catholic Book Program has been in operation ever since. The program has been expanded to include more than a dozen books by some of the greatest Catholic authors of our time, and each year we add new titles.
This year we will distribute more than two million books and CDs for parishes to pass out at Christmas Masses. Some dioceses will distribute a book to everyone who attends Mass in their diocese this Christmas. At the request of hundreds of parishes, we also make various books available for Lent, Easter, and summer reading programs and have expanded the program to include books from many of the great Catholic voices of our time. We choose books that help people grow in understanding and practice of the Four Signs and have seen incredible results in parishes, with increased engagement and enthusiasm among the early indicators.
While I agree with my teammate who said if we only distributed one book to every Catholic in America over the next ten years that would be a great contribution, we did not want to stop there. We knew we could and should do more, and the book you are holding and the research behind it is just the beginning of that bigger mission we feel called to. Much more than being just a form of learning or entertainment, books really do change our lives. We become the books we read. And the truth is, if every Catholic in America read one or two great Catholic books each year, that would be a game changer. It seems so simple, but it would change everything.
Now consider the problem at hand. Ignorance of Catholicism is massive. We are aware that the more someone knows about the faith the more likely he or she is to become highly engaged. Most people don’t know where to start.
Is the solution to this problem more adult education classes or better adult education experiences? Probably not. Why? Because, even if you design the best adult education class in the world, you would still only get a fraction of the Catholic population to attend. This doesn’t mean that we should not have great adult education sessions and present them in a way that is world-class. We should. They will be a game changer for some, but not for the whole Church. Is the solution to the problem better Sunday homilies? No. Why? Because you can only share so much in seven minutes on a Sunday. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to provide world-class homilies; it just means these will not likely solve the problem of how little Catholics know about their faith. The problem with events at church is that you cannot get enough people to attend, and the problem with Sunday homilies is that they are too short and infrequent to solve the problem.
If your goal were to teach as many Catholics as much as you could about the Catholic faith over the next decade, you would need a method that was portable and practical for millions of people. The answer is good old-fashioned books.
If you read five pages of a great Catholic book every day you will be amazed how your knowledge and enthusiasm for the faith will begin to grow. Just five pages a day. I hope you’re thinking, “I can do that.” Five pages a day for a year is 1,825 pages in that year, 18,250 pages in a decade, and 45,625 pages over twenty-five years. That’s 228 books with an average length of two hundred pages.
If you asked most people to read 45,625 pages of Catholic material, they would be completely overwhelmed. If you asked most people to commit to reading 228 Catholic books they would feel intimidated. But five pages a day, we can do that. Continuous improvement—it makes incredible things possible.
How would your life be different one year from now, five years from now, ten years from now if you read five pages of a great Catholic book each day?
How would your parish be different one year from now if every parishioner read five pages of a great Catholic book each day? How would the Catholic Church in America be different if each of us read five pages of a great Catholic book each day? It’s a game changer—simple, practical, powerful, transformative.
The world and the culture cannot answer our deepest questions or bring profound meaning to our lives. For answers to our deepest questions we must turn to God. Only then, through those answers and with an open heart, will our lives be flooded with meaning and purpose.
Five pages a day. I hope you can hear the voice of your best self within you saying, “I can do that!” If you don’t know what books to start with, click here for a list of ten books that changed my life. They are a great place to start. Become a continuous learner, and encourage every Catholic you know to do the same. One of the best things about Catholicism is that there are answers. Let’s start to fill our hearts and minds with the truth and goodness of those answers.
* This is an excerpt from Matthew Kelly’s bestselling book The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic.