Re-FORMing faith of today’s Catholics
“You can’t manage a dozen platforms,” a priest once told Dr. Timothy Gray, author, president of the Augustine Institute, professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, and Denver Legate. The priest’s advice put reality into Gray’s ambitious response to Saint John Paul II’s call to evangelize using the new media.
Gray — a featured speaker at the upcoming 2020 Summit East in Naples, FL — helped establish the Augustine Institute, now the largest Catholic graduate school of theology in the country. He also helped develop programs to train Catholics for the New Evangelization, including catechetical tools, leadership formation resources, and youth ministry programs.
Yet, the priest was right. Gray’s ambition to evangelize had human limits. It did not, however, have supernatural limits. And thus, FORMED was created almost five years ago to go beyond what one person or one organization can do. It is a program like nothing the Catholic world has seen. Rather than manage multiple platforms, FORMED brings together over 60 Catholic organizations, collaborating to gather over 3,000 digital resources in one place.
In addition, Ignatius Press partnered with Augustine Institute to offer audio books and video streaming. And Lighthouse Media, known for offering CDs and books in kiosks at parishes, has merged with them. Mark Middendorf, a co-founder of Lighthouse Media, is now the executive vice-president of sales at the Augustine Institute, and also a Legate in the Denver Chapter. “Both organizations were doing fine on their own,” he said, “but we realized that together, we could reach more souls.”
Building Up the Church
Matt Meeks, chief marketing and innovation officer, has worked in the fields of advertising, entertainment, and technology before joining FORMED, and had belonged to the Hollywood Legatus Chapter before moving to Denver. Referring to a study that found 2,000 people a day are leaving the Church, he said, “This is heart-breaking and unacceptable. And we believe we can stop it.”
“The mission of FORMED is two-fold,” Meeks explained. “First, we are helping people to understand, live, and share their faith,” he said. ”Second, we are building up the Church – especially during difficult times.”
FORMED seeks out the best of the best, and produces much of its own content. “We are consistently adding content based on what users are watching, and just inked a content deal with the BBC for the ‘Father Brown’ series,” Meeks said. They will soon launch a program for millennial Catholics to re-engage the disengaged, he said. “Additionally, we are expanding internationally and have begun supporting dioceses and organizations in Asia, Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere. As a fun anecdote, every parish in Singapore is now a FORMED parish.”
Through parish subscriptions, parishioners are given access codes. “We encourage people to share their FORMED code with family, friends, and neighbors,” Gray said. “This is about the mission of sharing the faith and the Gospel.”
The mission begins with prayer. At the office, there is a full-time chaplain. Mass, Confessions, and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy at 3 p.m. are all offered daily in the chapel.
“Every time a parish signs up, we have a Mass said for them,” Gray said. “And we have 80- plus convents of sisters we’ve asked to pray for the Augustine Institute and FORMED [about 120 employees], and for all the subscribers and donors, too.”
Thousands of testimonials attest that the mission is being accomplished. “One guy thought that his mother was in a sect because she is Catholic,” Gray said. “He went on FORMED through her membership to convince her it was a sect. Instead, he ended up converting. He wrote a letter to her pastor thanking him for the subscription to FORMED.”
Another man had lost his job and planned to commit suicide that night. “But he got online with FORMED and watched things that convinced him not to end his life. For the next week, he binge-watched, and it changed his life.”
A favorite story of Gray’s is of a teenage girl who shared FORMED with her best friend who was raised in a non-religious family. The friend wanted to become Catholic but told the pastor at the parish to which she would belong that she first wanted them to join FORMED.
Many Legates have sponsored memberships, according to Middendorf. “Two families in Texas sponsor FORMED for all the international military bases for people serving our country,” he said. “There have been other members that have sponsored 10, 20, even 50 parishes with the bishop. That helps parishes that are struggling financially.”
To date, a third of all parishes in the U.S. — nearly 5,000 — subscribe to FORMED, and 800,000 individuals are registered. The site has both English and Spanish e-books, audio books, award-wining audio dramas, movies, documentaries, children’s products, and parish-based programs.
Parish Program Brings People to Mass
Some of the most dramatic feedback, according to Middendorf, has come through a parish program produced by the Augustine Institute and released last year: Signs of Grace for First Communion and Confession. It includes two videos for parents to watch: Presence, about the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist; and Forgiven, about the power of the Sacrament of Confession.
When Middendorf followed up with parishes, the results were astounding. At one parish, only 20 percent of the families went to Sunday Mass before using the program. Afterward when Middendorf asked the director of religious education how many were going now, she told him, “You are not going to believe it. All of them!”
“We heard that story again and again,” Middendorf said. “There are over 1,600 testimonials under the video Presence. Most programs just go after the children, but this is an opportunity to reach the parents too. Imagine if a parish did this for 10 years.”
The Augustine Institute offers Legatus members a free trial subscription to FORMED. Visit FORMED.org/login, enter Legatus in search field, select Legatus from dropdown, and provide email address to receive a link.
PATTI ARMSTRONG is a Legatus magazine contributing writer.