If you asked Tom Peterson who he was 20 years ago, he would tell you he was a different man.
He was successful in the advertising world, was married and had three young daughters. He had a second home, a big bank account and several nice cars. Life was pretty good.
Speaking to nearly 2,400 men gathered at the eighth annual Men of Christ conference at the Milwaukee Theatre on Saturday, March 15, Peterson told how he grew up Catholic but was slowing fading away from the faith and was focusing on the “monuments and awards to my ego.”
“All the things that the American Dream tells us we have to have,” Peterson said. “When you have those things, you end up spending more time taking care of them and they actually turn into a bit of a ball and chain around your neck.”
He didn’t realize how far he had drifted.
“The glamour of my career and the ambition in my heart took over the place of God and I put him in a back seat position,” he said. “I thought I was a nice guy and new father and all. But through his grace, he saved me.”
Peterson said he went to Mass occasionally but had a “reversion” experience when he was invited to amarried men’s retreat in 1997.
“It really touched my heart and I began to cry,” he said about his time at the retreat. “It was like God’s infused wisdom speaking to my heart. I didn’t hear any voices in my ears but I heard the invitation to downsize and simplify my life.”
He starting attending daily Mass and had several dreams about giving back to the church.
“God was calling me to use my advertising talents to serve him and the church,” he said.
Today, people refer to this time as “post-retreat Tom.”
“I was a different man,” he said. “I immediately stopped swearing and it wasn’t through a lot of my efforts, at first, it was through God’s grace. I used to use swear words every other word … obviously when you’re moving fast and working hard, it’s easy for men to not be careful with their language.”
During this time, Peterson endured his greatest challenge.
“I found that my business partner was cheating customers, not charging the proper amount of expenses. I also found a client that made the front page of the (news) paper and they were calling them white collar criminals,” he said. “And I was really faced with a choice in my life. Are you taking this seriously to focus on Christ or are you going to lead your old life?”
Peterson decided to leave the company and “resigned” the client who was written about in the newspaper. That decision cost him more than $80,000.
“Are you going to serve God or are you going to serve money,” Peterson asked himself. “I had to give up that one thing that had a big hold on me and that was the ambition for money and power and fame.”
After he left, he started Virtue Media and Catholics Come Home.
Since starting these companies, commercials advocating the return of Catholics to Mass have run in 37 dioceses and four times on national television.
Peterson said 12 dioceses conducted Mass counts after the commercials ran and found that 500,000 Catholics had come back to Mass.
“Some dioceses did a longitudinal study that showed that many of those people had stayed,” he added.
Peterson, who lives with his wife in Woodstock, Ga., and attends St. Peter Chanel Parish in Roswell, urged Catholics to continue to evangelize because the “secular tsunami” is luring people away.
Soon after he finished speaking, individuals made their way to the table where Peterson was selling his book, “Catholics Come Home.”
Howard Hetzel, a member of St. Frances Cabrini Parish, West Bend, said Peterson has a dynamic story.
“He’s one of the best speakers I’ve seen and I’ve been (to Men of Christ) all eight years,” he said.
Hetzel bought a copy of the book and said he gets energized when he attends this conference.
“One of the things I get out of this is seeing 2,500-3,000 men together, all traveling in the same direction, which is toward Jesus Christ,” Hetzel said.
Steve Geishirt, a member of St. John the Baptist Parish, Waunakee, bought two books — one for himself and one for a friend to help in their efforts to bring Catholics back to the church.
“Tom is very well known in the marketing industry. For years I read his name and (about his) business,” he said. “I see Christ in him and I know he’s on track and I know what he can do.”
Some men even came from outside of Wisconsin to attend the conference. Joe Von Arx, a member of Holy Family Parish in Rockford, Ill., came with one of his sons.
“(Peterson) gave some practical ideas to bring some lapsed Catholics back to the church,” he said, adding this wasn’t his first time at the Men of Christ conference. “It’s just an opportunity, kind of like an oasis in the middle of the desert of everyday experience, we kind of take an afternoon off to get right back on track.”