Matthew Pinto founded Ascension Press in 1998 with one goal in mind: to publish a book for Catholic teens titled Did Adam and Eve Have Bellybuttons?
But when the collection of 200 questions and answers took off, Pinto got an idea for a second book and a set of flip cards. By 2002, sales from all three titles had provided enough seed money to hire a staff person and make Ascension a full-time venture.
Pinto has since grown the print-based publishing firm into a Catholic media company with a staff of 65 and a mission of presenting the truth and beauty of the faith as the sure path to authentic happiness in a hurting world. Ascension has more than doubled its staff in over the past 18 months.
Although Pinto, a member of Legatus’ Philadelphia Chapter, founded the company to publish printed materials, Ascension today is largely about learning systems with videos and workbooks designed for small-group use in Catholic parishes. In following this direction, the company has tapped into — and may have even single-handedly created — a new focus on adult faith formation in the Church.
“Today, we have 40 learning systems on everything from Church history to Bible study, from Theology of the Body to prayer, doctrinal issues, Mary and the Eucharist,” Pinto said.
As president of Ascension Press, he says adult faith formation is essential to the New Evangelization.
“If we do not have a laity that is strongly catechized and knowledgeable, there’s simply no way we’re going to be able to have a material effect on the culture,” he explained. “Often, our faith formation ends with Confirmation. In the U.S. alone, there are millions of people of good will going to Mass on Sunday with an understanding of faith that is stunted and limited.”
Mike Gormley concurs. He’s the coordinator of evangelization at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in The Woodlands, Texas. His parish uses Ascension Press resources for its adult Bible study groups and Life Teen and middle school programs.
“There’s a great hunger among Catholics who were raised in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s who didn’t get good evangelization, apologetics or catechesis,” he said. The Ascension Press programs, Gormley explained, are helping many of these adult Catholics get the education they missed when they were young.
Parishes access Ascension Press programs in a variety of ways, including purchasing DVD sets and workbooks. More recently, however, the company has added a video-streaming platform geared specifically to small-group use. Currently, more than 5,000 study groups are using their rapidly growing free “Access Ascension” digital platform.
Ascension also has an evangelistic media platform at AscensionPresents.com that introduces the Catholic faith to people through free video content by speakers like Fr. Mike Schmitz, Jeff Cavins, Jason and Crystalina Evert, Matt Fradd and Leah Darrow. The site also offers a series of long-form podcasts.
“Echoing the call of the New Evangelization,” Pinto said, “we are continually looking for ‘new methods and new expressions’ to transmit the faith effectively.”
GROWING WITH PASSION
Ascension’s growth and evolution from a publisher of three titles into a media company was marked by several watershed moments. The first, Pinto said, occurred in 2004 when he was invited to a private screening in St. Paul, Minn., of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ about two months before its theatrical release. At the time, the company had a staff of about eight, but was growing quickly.
As he watched the film, Pinto thought, “The symbolism in this film is off the charts. Someone needs to explain this.”
Once outside in his car, he called a friend who was working with the film and said, “We need to do a Q&A book and we need to do it now.” For the next three hours, while driving to La Crosse, Wis., Pinto dictated 70 questions that would eventually become 100.
“Within just six weeks, we had the book ready to go, and it really was a marvel in a certain sense. On Ash Wednesday, the day the film opened, we announced to the Catholic world that this book was available. Up until this point, there had only been evangelical responses to this movie.”
Within eight days, A Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions about The Passion of the Christ, had sold 120,000 copies and went on to sell 1 million in 14 weeks, hitting No. 6 on the New York Times religion best-seller list. It was translated into six languages in six weeks.
Ascension also became the first company to respond to The Da Vinci Code phenomenon, again with a question-and-answer book, The Da Vinci Deception.
The company soon began publishing The Bible Timeline, developed by Jeff Cavins, a former Protestant minister and revert to the Catholic faith. The color-coded memory learning system follows the story of salvation history from Genesis to Jesus, showing how and where the Bible’s 73 books fit into it. More than 1 million people have gone through the program, which took Ascension Press in a new direction as Pinto realized that more people could be reached through such learning systems than through books.
Growing up in an entrepreneurial family, Pinto gained a familiarity early in life with creating and running businesses. As a college student at Temple University in Philadelphia, he started a boutique advertising company and ran it until 1991. When, at 21 years old, an evangelical Christian challenged him about his Catholic faith, he decided he had some learning to do.
While driving around to meet with graphic artists and printers, he listened to audio cassette tapes about the faith: “My mind was blown away by what I heard.” His re-education in Catholicism convinced him to use the skills he had acquired in advertising and marketing communication for the sake of the Church and the gospel.
Pinto’s work has helped Ascension Press reach into nearly 10,000 parishes, giving Catholics solid, appealing programs for young people and adults. Among them is Our Lady of the Rosary in Coatesville, Pa., where Tim Irwin has taught the Confirmation class with his wife Karen for 15 years. Only during the last two years, however, has the parish used the Ascension Press Chosen program, which won the 2015 Ministry Resource of the Year and Book of the Year award from the Association of Catholic Publishers.
“I see the difference,” Irwin said.
The program is user-friendly, relevant and designed with up-to-date videos that connect with his students, he said, adding that he thinks Ascension understands the importance of creating materials that articulate not just what Catholics believe, but why.
Irwin credits Chosen with transforming a student who came to him and his wife with a reputation for being challenging.
“We saw him take to the program and to the whole Confirmation experience in a really positive light,” Irwin explained. “By the end of the program, this kid was connected and in tune with what he was learning.”
JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.