Matthew Pinto was a little like a deer in the headlights.
He’d just met an Evangelical Chris-tian who harbored a host of misunderstandings about the Catholic faith—questions and challenges that actually convinced Pinto that he was in spiritual danger. So, for the first time in his 21-year-old life, he fully engaged in figuring out whether the religious truths he’d been taught really were true. Or not.
In the end, he came to a couple of realizations: God does exist, and the church is what it says it is. As for the latter, it continues to be a visible, viable entity filled with both good and bad. Yet it’s still mightily infused with the capacity to teach valuable lessons.
Pinto has proven his point with Ascension Press, a publishing company based in West Chester, where the now 49-year-old also resides. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people use Ascension Press resources for Bible studies, marriage-prep and youth-chastity programs, and an array of adult faith-formation programs on church history, doctrine, human sexuality and prayer. It has a presence in every state, each of the nation’s 180-plus dioceses, and all the provinces and dioceses in Canada. Its materials have made it to dozens of countries around the world.
Ascension’s approach intentionally mixes the secular and the sacred to provide in-through-the-front-door opportunities for faith formation. “We love the Lord, and we love the church,” says Pinto, who is Ascension’s founder and president. “We don’t want to be a step ahead or a step behind it. We have no interest other than carrying out Jesus’ agenda, and we believe his agenda is the church’s agenda—though it hasn’t been played out [to its fullest].”
Pinto has quietly built one of the top two Roman Catholic faith-formation companies in the country. (The other is Little Rock Scripture Study in Arkansas.) Ascension started gaining traction with a few massively successful projects; Pinto’s own books have sold 1.5 million copies. And the business continues to grow, with video campaigns, conferences, local and national outreach, and more.
Such success couldn’t come at a better time for the Catholic Church, which is still reeling from the gut punch dealt by a series of well-publicized clergy sex-abuse scandals. Basically, Ascension offers a fresh, hip approach to fixing (Pinto would say “strengthening”) the church in a time of great need. One study indicates that the Roman Catholic Church has lost 3 percent of its population since the scandals.
“It’s part of our mission to fortify the beliefs of the practice of Catholicism, but also to clear up the misconceptions of those who have left,” admits Pinto. “We’ve been one of the many lights in a time of darkness.”
Pinto cites some 20 faith-formation organizations—or efforts—around the country. At least 60 percent of those, he says, have sprung up in the aftermath of the scandals. So it’s clear that adversity has created both demand and supply—a secular concept indeed.
“I believe we’ll grow much more,” says Pinto. “There’s a staggering hunger to know if there’s more to life than this. There was the hedonism of the ’60s and the materialism of the ’80s. It’s all been tried by many and found to be wanting; none of that has been satisfying. There’s still a longing in our hearts.”
Matthew Pinto figures TV evangelist Billy Graham had it right when he said, “Just like our polio vaccine used to have some of the polio virus in it—specifically to keep people from getting the disease—so, too, is the case with Christianity. We give our people just enough of the faith to keep them from getting the faith.”
“The same is often true of Catholicism,” says Pinto. “Our young people are given just enough of it to keep them from actually ‘getting’ Catholicism.”
The sixth of seven children, Pinto grew up in Yeadon, where he was raised in the St. Louis parish. Like many who inherited their Roman Catholicism by birthright, his parents assumed that the so-called eighth sacrament (there are only seven) would do all the work. “The eighth was holy osmosis,” he says now.
Pinto attended Catholic school only until the fourth grade, graduating from Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne. He graduated from Temple University in 1987 with a mass communications degree, and then quickly became immersed in the advertising and marketing world, which eventually led to a spiritual “reawakening” to his faith. For his “deep diving” expedition, he consumed himself in Roman Catholic readings. He listened to religious cassette tapes in his car while calling on clients for his advertising agency based in Wynnewood.
In 1998, he founded Ascension Press. Four years later, he began hiring others. He now employs 30 locally and another 20 in Wisconsin through a strategic partner. He foresees adding seven more staffers in West Chester by the end of the year.
AP’s first book was the teen question-and-answer tome, Did Adam & Eve Have Belly Buttons? It sold 300,000 copies. Then came Did Jesus Have a Last Name? and Do I Have to Go? 101 Questions About the Mass, the Eucharist, and Your Spiritual Life.
Following Hollywood’s 2006 release of The Da Vinci Code, AP issued The Da Vinci Deception, debunking myths from the movie and selling 250,000 copies. There was Inside the Passion: An Insider’s Look at the Passion of the Christ. And Pinto coauthored A Guide to the Passion: 100 Questions About the Passion of the Christ, which sold more than 120,000 units in the first two weeks, eventually surpassing a million copies in less than four months and reaching No. 6 on the New York Times Best Sellers List for religious titles in 2004. It has since been translated into six languages.
And yet, there are significant challenges to AP’s all-encompassing brand of “adult faith formation.” In an average parish of 1,000 families, only 20 or 30 of them continue to feed their intellect—and religiosity—beyond Sunday Mass. Even so, Pinto has seen that number grow exponentially in the years since the scandals. “More and more [parishes] are becoming savvier in learning how to put on programs,” he says.
As it stands, many Catholics do all their religious study as children in the diocesan schools. But faith formation is a lifelong process, says Fr. Christopher Redcay. Based on an evening-class model, his 2,700-family St. Patrick’s parish in Malvern created“God’s Night School,” using Ascension Press materials for the curriculum. AP’s A Quick Journey Through the Bible was first, then another on deepening the prayer experience. More than 100 adults attended the first Bible class; as many as 30 moms have enrolled in daytime classes. Redcay estimates that the parish has spent between $750 and $1,000 per AP program. “We realize we can’t just let people go after high school,” he says. “We have to keep feeding [them]. Sometimes, the more answers you get, the more questions you have—even if it’s the first time you’ve thought about these issues in a long time. That’s part of the awakening.”
Christianity’s other denominations—whether it’s Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists or whatever—better understand the notion of “survival of the fittest.” As such, says Pinto, they have an advantage on Catholicism, which has been more laid-back—self-confident, perhaps. It’s word and sacrament heavy, Pinto adds, so why not create more publications and materials to feed the hunger?
Basically, up until now, Catholics have had fewer “things” going on, says Pinto. Plus, priests have done everything in individual parishes—and Pinto suggests that that may be to blame for the drop in numbers of those drawn to the clerical vocation. Others say it’s part of a divine plan to force lay people to step forward to engage in better proselytization.
“It’s been a culture of safety,” says Pinto of the centuries of Roman Catholic faith. “There’s been no need to be formed in faith. There’s been support in the complacency and contentedness. So Catholicism has become ill-equipped to fend for itself when various ‘isms’ (including sexism) have challenged our faith.”
Scott Hahn is a famous modern convert to Catholicism. He was also a featured
speaker at the National Catholic Bible Conference hosted by Ascension Press in Doylestown this past June. “The Catholic faith is like a lion in its cage,” he says. “You don’t need to defend it; you simply need to let it out of its cage.”
Pinto connects Catholics’ increased craving for spiritual reawakening to two events: the sex-abuse scandals and 9/11—one sacred, the other secular. “People are yearning for healing and answers,” he says. “There’s a lot of woundedness, but Catholicism’s best days are ahead. We’re not pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. We’re protective of the endowment that God has given us on earth as pilgrims.”
The most visible responders to this re-initiation are those aged 35-60. A bulk of them are in their late 40s, like Pinto. “Even if there are 7.2 billion people all created in God’s image and likeness … we realize the 7.2 billion people are different, and they need to be reached in different ways,” he says.
So, while there are 73 books in the Bible, AP has collapsed them into the 14 most critical. It’s what Pinto calls a “two-hour movie.” “We can teach them in a day, using pneumonic devices,” he says. “Our goal is modest, basic Bible literacy.”
Young upstarts like Ascension Press add to a smorgasbord of faith-formation opportunities that can engage and transform others. But Cackie Upchurch, director of Little Rock Scripture Study, says her 40-year-old ministry isn’t looking at what AP’s doing. She supports the need to build “religious community” on a deeper level. “We’re exclusively adult formation, which makes our teaching methodology different,” says Upchurch. “I don’t view Ascension in terms of competition. It serves a broader market, so they do things differently. Some of what [AP does] seems to be more simplistic and less attentive to the cultural and historical settings of the pieces—and to the importance of those who produced the works and what they say to us.”
With its new Chosen confirmation program, Pinto believes AP is sparking kids who, so far, have been obliged to be only parishioners. Its marriage-prep course is used by dioceses around the country, including 25 locally. On the opposite end, there’s The Catholic’s Divorce Survival Guide. Another program, “Momnipotent,” is for single mothers with kids.
Wynnewood’s Meghan Cokeley says AP has helped fan the flames of an impulse for internal spiritual rejuvenation in the church. As director of the Office for the New Evangelization at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, she worked closely with Pinto when it sought to renew its marriage-prep classes. Cokeley has invited Pinto to serve as a speaker for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September 2015. AP is evaluating ways to financially support the mega-event, which could attract the pope.
Yet, despite all of its success nationwide, there are still those within the church who know little, if anything, about AP. “My lack of familiarity [with AP] seems to be a consequence of the long-standing aversion of the church’s leadership to independent efforts,” says a well-connected Catholic who requested anonymity. “Anything not directly controlled by the archdiocese is to be ignored and isolated at best, and threatened and intimidated at worst. There’s a long history behind that approach, and it’s a tough thing to break.”
Pinto says he’s making the Catholic faith come alive by presenting it in slick, slimmed-down packaging. “We’re competing with American Idol, Survivor, the National Football League and J.Crew commercials,” he says.
It’s a progressive approach. Pinto himself has appeared on numerous TV and radio programs, explaining and defending the Catholic faith.
Little Rock’s Upchurch wrote her college thesis on Christian ethics in business. Sales must help fulfill a mission, she says, but if you’re not selling, you’re not meeting needs. And if there’s no profit, there’s no new money to put toward initiatives.
While Ascension Press has had remarkable success with a traditional business model, Pinto claims he’d do it for free. And, after all, his booming company is leveraging resources for the purpose of spreading what’s “true, good and beautiful.”
“We’ve looked to the secular world and don’t see it as something to be avoided,” he says. Visit www.ascensionpress.com.