Like the fable of the tortoise and the hare, the pamphlet keeps winning no matter how fast -- and amazing! -- its opponent may be.

Radio, films, records, television, filmstrips, cassettes, videos, DVDs, websites, blogs, podcasts, e-books, webinars.

Whatever's next -- bring it on! The religious tract remains on track.

Not bad for a medium that, it could be argued, dates back to the apostles. No, by definition, the epistles of Peter, Paul, John and others aren't pamphlets -- they're letters -- but each is relatively brief and was composed with a specific target audience and topic in mind. And each was written as a catechetical instrument, a tool to be used for religious education.

Saintly origins

So maybe the Catholic tract doesn't really go back almost 2,000 years. Maybe it's only since the late 16th and early 17th centuries when St. Francis de Sales -- a bishop, Doctor of the Church and patron of the Catholic press -- penned and distributed short material on Catholic doctrine. (He also wrote books that have become spiritual classics.) His pamphlets not only helped many people learn the truth about the Church but enter the Church as well.

But, certainly, pamphlets, tracts, booklets -- whatever the term -- have been a continuous part of the Church in the United States since the beginning of the 20th century. And major Catholic publishing houses and other national organizations -- now with websites, blogs and all the rest -- are still in the pamphlet business, too. And show no signs of stopping.

Keys to success

Why would they? What worked for St. Francis de Sales in his Diocese of Geneva, Switzerland, still works for dioceses, parishes and families throughout the United States and throughout the world.

A successful catechetical pamphlet is:

  • Small in physical size. It fits in a purse or pocket.
  • Short. The word-count isn't overwhelming, few thousand words perhaps.
  • Understandable. The topic may be complex but the explanation is one the average reader can comprehend.
  • Informative. You have a question about...? This pamphlet, on that specific topic, has the answer.
  •  Accurate. This is what the Church teaches and this is why it does. And, often, that pamphlet includes an imprimatur, further assurance that sound doctrine is being presented here. The material has been reviewed and approved by those who know and defend Catholic dogma.
  • Visually appealing. (Although a design -- font, layout, art -- that was popular in the early 20th century probably isn't in the early 21st.)
  • Cheap! No, not shoddy, but with a low, low price -- or free.

Two examples

Our Sunday Visitor is a prime example of a pamphlet publisher. In fact, OSV traces its roots back to Father -- later Archbishop -- John Noll and his pamphlets. As the OSV website explains:

"So, with this spirit of evangelization, in 1903 he embarked on his literary career with no idea that he was launching an enterprise that would become one of the largest Catholic publishing houses in the world.

"Father Noll's first publication was a series of little pamphlets about various aspects of the faith titled 'Kind Words From Your Pastor.' The pamphlets were so well received by his parishioners that Father Noll sent copies to priests in other parts of the country, thinking they might be helpful to other pastors. He subsequently received many requests for his pamphlets and had to hire a local printer to handle the orders."

A century later, pastors are still finding OSV pamphlets helpful, according to Beverly Israel, pastoral assistant at San Clemente Parish in Los Lunas, N.M. Two years ago her boss, Father Douglas Mitchell, asked to her arrange for an OSV pamphlet to be included in the parish bulletin on a monthly basis.

"He knew I ordered them for the rack in the back of the church," she said, "and kept track of what was taken." As bulletin editor, she oversees the volunteers who staple a pamphlet to each of the 900 to 1,000 bulletins distributed on a weekend. (Staple? Live and learn. A stapled pamphlet can't fall out in the narthex or parking lot.)

The response from parishioners has been great, she continued. "In March we used 'Living Abundantly in Difficult Times.' April was 'How to Celebrate the Easter Season.' I look through the list of Our Sunday Visitor titles and really appreciate what they offer."

"We have about 70 different pamphlets," said David Dziena, OSV's parish acquisition editor. Bestsellers include "How to Make a Good Confession" and "Six Ways I Can Make My Parish Better" and ones that focus on the liturgical season and the sacraments.

OSV pamphlets -- trifolds on glossy stock with four colors and contemporary art and design -- are about 1,500 words long, Dziena said. In a pinch, the staff can get a new one completed and off to the printer in two weeks. And a pamphlet can be quickly updated, too. That was the case earlier this year with "What the Church Teaches: Stem Cell Research & Cloning" after a change in federal policy.

Liguori Publications uses a different style and format, according to acquisition editor Christopher Orlet. Its standard size is a 24-page booklet measuring about 3 inches by 5 inches. The word count is around 3,000. The cover features art but there are photographs inside.

Like OSV, a popular Liguori pamphlet -- or booklet -- in recent times has been "How to Stop Worrying About Money." Other favorites are "What is Heaven?" "How to Pray" and "Frequently Asked Questions About Annulments." Those are from a catalog of more than 300 titles.

And like OSV, Liguori's are in racks in the back of parish churches. (In fact, Orlet said, that was where -- as a child -- he first came across Liguori.) "We usually send a box of a couple hundred to a parish," he said. That might include two sets of 10 copies of 10 titles. "We try to keep timely topics. We switch them up. Put in new ones. Rewrite or stop publishing what isn't selling."

But, overall, they are selling. In tough economic times, they're seen as a bargain for an individual who wants to explain a Catholic teaching to a co-worker or an in-law, to a family facing end-of-life issues, to a parish RCIA group or confirmation class.

All that for less than the price of an average birthday card at the local drug store. Liguori's standard sized pamphlets are priced at $1 each with bulk discounts. OSV sells in bulk, 50 copies of one for $14.95. (And offers a free copy for anyone sending in a self-addressed stamped envelope.) In 2008, OSV sold more than 4.5 million pamphlets. Liguori sells close to 1 million pamphlets annually.

Both have material in English and Spanish.

Both know that the "tortoise" is alive and well.

Both know religious education pamphlets are still entering homes, informing minds,touching hearts, changing lives and saving souls.

Anti-Catholic 'comic book' tracts

Catholic pamphlets aren't the only ones doing well. So are anti-Catholic tracts.

Perhaps the best-known publisher of those in recent times -- and for four decades -- is Chick Publications, founded by Jack Chick. With their distinctive comic-book style, Chick tracts have never stopped taking slams at the Catholic Church.

Or, from Chick's stated perspective, never stopped trying to "save" Catholics who are doomed to spend eternity in hell if they don't denounce their Catholicism.

A new title in his catalog of dozens of tracts is no exception. "Papa" uses the death of the pope the show how the Catholic Church wasn't founded by Christ (but by Satan), foolishly believes in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, has deluded countless souls over the centuries and assured their damnation, and much, much more. Including controlling the United Nations and the world's finances.

A recent twist? Throwing in a shot at parish priests. (Stay away from him! He's been arrested! Something about altar boys!)

Despite being riddled with misinformation and misleading information about Catholicism, the tracts remain popular. Or maybe that explains their popularity.

Chick Publications' website (www.chick.com) says hundreds of tracts have been produced and translated into hundred of languages. And "hundreds of millions of copies have been read worldwide."

Four sources for pamphlets

Knights of Columbus, Catholic Information Service

203-752-4267

www.kofc.org

Liguori Publications

800-325-9521

www.liguori.org

Our Sunday Visitor

800-348-2440

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

800-235-8722

www.usccbpublishing.org

Bill Dodds, who with his wife founded the Friends of St. John the Caregiver (www.FSJC.org), writes from Washington state.