“Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use social media,” said Father William Holtzinger, recasting a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.

The pastor of St. Anne Parish in Grants Pass and many of his fellow priests and religious sisters see social media as helpful — and increasingly necessary — in their ministry, especially in their efforts to reach youths.   

But it’s not just the young who connect via cyberspace: About 68 percent of all U.S. adults use Facebook, according to 2016 Pew Research Center figures. Recognizing social media’s potential, priests and religious have harnessed it in creative ways, even as some view it with trepidation. Social media helps keep parishioners up to date on parish events, aids vocations work and nurtures connections across religious communities.  

Daughter of St. Paul Sister Helena Burns is a Canada-based film producer, speaker and blogger on media literacy with nearly 29,000 Twitter followers. She said digital discourse “has both lights and shadows,” and it’s the church’s responsibility “to engage, but engage intentionally.”

The rise of digital discourse

One of the first social media sites was created in 1997. Called Six Degrees, its users uploaded profiles and connected with fellow users. MySpace and LinkedIn gained prominence in the early 2000s; Facebook was launched in 2004, and YouTube and Twitter emerged over the next two years. Instagram, the photo-sharing application, is the new kid on the cyber-block, founded in 2010.

Globally, YouTube users now number 1 billion, while last month Facebook reached 2 billion — or nearly 30 percent of the world’s population.

The Catholic Church has observed and engaged with the trend from a human-centered paradigm. “Today the social networks are one way to … discover the beauty of faith, the beauty of encountering Christ,” said Pope Francis in his 2014 World Communications Day message.

However, church leaders continually ask the question: How should we be using this powerful tool?

A drop of grace in cyberspace

Holy Cross Father Dan Parrish, an assistant professor of business at the University of Portland, uses social media for quick access to news, to “connect with thinkers in real time,” and to provide followers with “a quick thought or drop of grace.”

Long interested in all things tech, Father Parrish was programming computers by age 12. When Twitter came along, the priest saw its potential to share and gather information quickly and to evangelize.

Some criticize Twitter’s 140-character limit, but “a lot of ideas we communicate are pretty simple at their core,” said Father Parrish. Most of the time he wants to convey something such as: “God loves you, don’t freak out, have a good Monday.”

The word limit “forces you to say something succinctly, to sharpen your wits,” added Sister Helena.

To convey an idea in more depth, you can direct people to other sources through a link, noted Father Parrish.

Twitter and Facebook are the most common social media platforms used by priests and religious sisters, with many preferring the brevity and news-oriented nature of Twitter. Yet Sister Michael Francine Duncan, vocations director for the Sister of St. Mary of Oregon who tweets regularly, finds meaningful prayers and theological information on LinkedIn. Father Holtzinger at St. Anne uses a variety of platforms, including YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest to share his hundreds of podcasts, which feature homilies and informational lectures on the Mass.

It’s valuable to let the social media form follow function, according to Sister Helena. A pastor, for example, could use the parish Facebook page to keep parishioners connected and informed of events, Instagram to show the parish behind the scenes and Twitter for outreach.

Bobbie Winn is a parishioner of St. Anne who follows Father Holtzinger on Facebook. His posts of inspirational, but not saccharine, messages alongside podcasts and news about the upcoming construction of the new church building “lift us up and keep us updated,” she said. Winn said she appreciates the access to her pastor outside of Sunday Masses. “If I come to him with a question or problem in a Facebook message, he’ll get back to me pretty quickly.”

She said Father Holtzinger, an amateur astronomer, will at times post where he plans to stargaze and invite others to join.

“Sometimes I think we put priests on a pedestal,” said Winn. “But when Father shares a little about himself on Facebook, it makes him real, very human. It really fleshes him out.”
Many priests and sisters agree it’s important to be authentic and prudently share more than just one dimension of themselves. Sister Michael Francine believes it’s critical to include a profile picture, not an image of a saint, art or nature. “You have to put a face out there because young people especially want to see real people,” she said.

Father Parrish said he’s careful not to be “a holy roller online, because that’s not who I am. We need to be careful not to be too Jesus-y all the time because nobody is like that. Most of us are more complex and have interests — we care about sports, hiking, music,” he said. “When we put that on there, it highlights the grace in everyday life.”

Light and shadows

Some orders’ charisms and missions mean social media are not a good fit, but in the Twitterverse you’ll find Jesuit and Holy Cross priests, Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon, Salesians and others. The Daughters of St. Paul “almost have to be there; our mission is to evangelize with media,” said Sister Helena. The order’s founder, Blessed James Alberione, “gave us a lot of guidance and spirituality and strategy for media,” she said.

Social media have changed vocations work for many religious orders. When Sister Michael Francine receives vocation-related emails from women, “all have been looking at our website, and they’ve often gotten there through Facebook or other social media,” she said.

“A webpage or social media is a nonthreatening avenue to view and even experience what religious life is like, through videos especially, without needing to jump all the way in,” added Father Holtzinger.

The benefits of social media extend beyond news consumption, vocations and sharing the word of God.

For Sister Michael Francine, it links her to vocations directors nationwide and helps her offer priests support. “Their job can be lonely, and we’ll say, ‘We are here, we can understand.’”

She said Twitter is also a great way to connect with other religious communities.

Sister Helena pointed out that those who serve the church must be mindful of the dark side of social media, such as pornography, violence as entertainment, and the incessant use of personal devices and their potential to disrupt familial relationships.

Most priests and sisters who are avid social media users put boundaries on screen time.
“I want to be a ninja nun — one who Tweets but never has their phone out in public,” laughed Sister Helena. She admitted she was addicted to her phone for a while, “but I came to realize I like books, eye contact and quiet.” Sister Helena now puts her phone on airplane mode and checks it “here and there.”

“It’s a more human way of living,” she said.

“You wouldn’t fritter away hours reading the newspaper or listening to the radio,” observed Father Parrish. “We need to be out there living our lives and making God known. Then using whatever tools we need along the way.

“But we should not be afraid of technology,” he added. “The wheel and newspaper are technologies, although we don’t often think of them that way. The church does humanity a great service as she finds ways to use the tools appropriately,” he said. “Let’s use well what’s at our fingertips to lift people up and spread the Gospel.”

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