Preaching to the connected

By William Newton on December 19th, 2011

As you read this, Father Cory Sticha is likely at work on his upcoming Sunday homily. Father Sticha is the parochial administrator of St Mary’s Parish in the small town of Malta – population 2,120 – in the high plains of Montana. He will edit a digital audio file of that homily on his computer, and then upload it to his blog, simultaneously notifying his friends and followers around the globe via social media.

“This is the great gift of the new social media networks,” says Father Sticha, “the ability to easily and quickly disperse information with a minimum of fuss. Because of this, the amount of information and content available to Catholics has exploded – we are no longer reliant on the traditional media of radio, TV, and print.”

Catholics today have a greater choice of media outlets for content related to their faith than ever before. There are resources such as internet-based Catholic television and radio channels; online videos exploring the history and catechism of the Church; and aggregate sites, blogs and social media groups engaging with, reporting and discussing news of interest to Catholics. If you are a Catholic today, and a bit of a geek, you no longer have to slog your way through the filter of establishment media in the Western world, which in recent years has sometimes seemed openly hostile to Catholicism.

Matthew Warner is a young Catholic, and CEO and founder of FlockNote.com, a communication and registration tool made specifically for Catholic parishes, dioceses and organisations. FlockNote allows these organisations to post information in one place, and distribute that information via  email, text messaging and social media, as well as providing custom registration and member management capabilities. He was one of the session leaders at the annual Catholic New Media Conference, sponsored by Catholic new media organisation StarQuest Production Network (“SQPN”), and held in St Louis, Missouri this August.

“Ten years ago I didn’t care about or consume Catholic content,” admits Warner. “Now I do. That was partly because I didn’t care about learning about my faith as much ten years ago. But it’s also because now there are not only so many more personalities and choices in content, but it is [also] so much more accessible.

“More importantly,” says Warner, “so much Catholic content is coming alive. It is no longer just words on a page — not to trivialise the power of words on a page at all — but now those words on a page are so easily thrown into the context and conversation of the world. They are being distributed in creative ways across new technologies that put seemingly endless amounts of brilliant information at the fingertips of those who can use it most powerfully.”

Perhaps the best summary of what has taken place in the development of Catholic new media, and how Catholics can take advantage of these changes, is contained in a new book entitled “The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet”. Written and edited by layman Brandon Vogt, the book contains sections from many prominent Catholic content creators, and sets out key areas for Catholics to consider in how they engage with new media, and produce content for it.

“New media has produced two major shifts in Catholic content,” says Vogt. “First, it’s more personable. You don’t have a celebrity priest or beloved bishop delivering a message through TV or radio. You have individual Catholics sharing [the] intimate ways that their faith is lived out day-to-day. Second, the content is centred on dialogue like never before. The days of long-winded monologues are fading fast, and are being replaced by two-way, interactive conversations. This shift is in turn moving the Church toward a more communal expression of faith.”

At this point, the impetus for implementation of new media resources remains largely in the hands of the laity: “Lay Catholics are ahead of the clergy right now,” Vogt believes, “but that’s because there’s less institutional resistance.” Vogt feels that as a whole, “the Catholic Church is lagging about three years behind most Protestant communities, and a good half-decade behind the secular world when it comes to engaging new media.”

One of the contributors to the book, Thomas Peters, is author of the winning blog, American Papist, one of the most popular in the Catholic blogosphere. He was among those invited to attend the first Vatican Bloggers Conference, held in May this year in Rome.  Peters found the experience a welcome gesture of outreach by the institutional Church.

“The mere fact that the Vatican chose to host us shows how serious the Church is about folding the online community of Catholic bloggers and social media entrepreneurs into the Church’s universal mission to proclaim the Gospel,” says Peters. “Many Catholics with extensive online experience have been frustrated by the slower pace with which the Vatican has embraced new technology. However I now respect the wisdom of that pace because the Church must carefully weigh new movements in the Church and the world to determine if they will be abiding, or just another passing fashion of the times.”

Peters notes that, unlike the hierarchy, the laity do not operate under the same constraints as an official publication of the Vatican, or a diocese, for example. “Catholic lay people are allowed to set out into the deep, but the Church is right to ensure that these new depths are safe for her Sacred mission.”

The challenge of making the most of new media has inspired many Catholics to do more to make their religion an integrated part of daily life, rather than something that happens for an hour at Mass on Sunday.

Lisa Hendey is the founder of CatholicMom.com, a website which gathers together a wealth of information for Catholic mothers and their families. The site is continually expanding, Hendey says, so that “with the help of over 120 volunteer contributors, I’m endeavouring to make CatholicMom.com an environment that uplifts, supports and educates Catholic families in their domestic churches. We employ blogging, social networking, podcasting and video with representation from many different ages and stages of life.” It is no surprise that she, too, was one of those invited to attend the Vatican Bloggers’ Conference earlier this year.

“When I founded CatholicMom.com around 2000,” Hendey explains, “there was very little in the way of Catholic content online.  For me, the biggest development has been the impact of social media on our message. In the past, media outlets were very ‘one way’ in the delivery of content. But now, with social media, often the best part of what happens online takes place in the comboxes or in social networking venues where the content is further discussed and analysed. That conversation by the faithful about the topics at hand provides tremendous opportunity for increased comprehension and analysis.”

Efforts by the institutional Church to respond to these opportunities may be coming later than some would have liked, but many lay content providers are encouraged:  “I am heartened to see the efforts the Church has made in the past year,” says Hendey.  “Along with the first ever Vatican Bloggers Conference and the launch of the new News.VA web portal, we’ve seen the US Conference of Catholic Bishops make great strides in communicating online and developing guidelines for the use of emerging technologies.”

Danielle Bean is editorial director of Faith & Family, a magazine and blog about Catholic daily living.  She sees the use of technological skills by those who may describe themselves as Catholic “geeks” being a great source of outreach for the Church. “I love seeing how various gifts can serve the Church in the forms of evangelisation and communication,” she notes, “and that includes technological skills.”

What inspires many of these content producers to keep blogging, podcasting, and social networking seems to be a combination of three desires: to evangelise, to engage in apologetics, and to create a greater sense of Catholic community. Bean finds a great deal of inspiration from the work that other Catholics are doing in new media outlets: “I love seeing everyday Catholic men, women, and clergy living out their Catholic lives and sharing all the special joys and challenges through social media. Blogs, Facebook and Twitter give us all a little window where we can look into other Catholics’ lives and see how they do it. It’s really inspiring.”

Yet Bean is also particularly encouraged by the use of new media by the clergy. “I love seeing younger priests communicate through new media,” she notes. “I also especially love seeing the availability of great Catholic apologetics online. The quality of information that is available with a simple Google search — if you know the good sites from the bad — is really amazing.”

One example of such encouragement is Brother Innocent Smith, a young Dominican friar studying for the priesthood at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. He recently re-founded the student friars’ magazine “Dominicana”, which had died off sometime after the changes of the Vatican II generation. A new piece is now published by the student friars on Dominicana from Monday to Friday, addressing topics from apologetics to theology to spirituality.

Brother Innocent notes that the employment of technology by the Church today extends beyond websites and social media. “One of the most remarkable developments of the last several years has been the growing availability of theological and catechetical texts on devices such as the Kindle and the iPhone,” he points out. “To mention just one example, the US Council of Catholic Bishops recently released the complete Catechism of the Catholic Church in Kindle format, which allows one to easily consult the text, including the footnotes, on a variety of devices.”

It is not just in Catholic teaching and apologetics that new media is providing opportunities for the Church, but also in the re-assessment or re-discovery of Catholic culture.

“One of the most impressive uses of new media in the service of Catholic culture I have seen,” notes Brother Innocent, “is the Corpus Christi Watershed website which, amongst other things, has collated the Gregorian chant propers for both the Ordinary and the Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite in a format where you can look at the music and hear recordings for each chant in a way that anticipates the current or upcoming liturgical day. This is a good example of utilising the distinctive ability of the internet to combine text, image, and sound that is dynamically presented to the user.”

James Bradley is a transitional deacon in London, preparing to be ordained as a Catholic priest; he had the honour of singing for Pope Benedict XVI at World Youth Day in Madrid this summer. He is also a member of the Anglican Ordinariate, or more properly the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, created by Pope Benedict XVI, which allows Anglicans who so wish to come into the full communion of the Catholic Church, while bringing many of their liturgical practices and traditions with them. Deacon Bradley works with a small team on the official website and social media of the Ordinariate, and was another attendee at the Vatican Bloggers’ Conference earlier this year.

Deacon Bradley warns that oftentimes those using new media have to recognise that they may not always find themselves in convivial company.  Content producers are “aware that their readership includes those who are attracted to the faith (but not there yet), and those who are hostile.”  Yet Deacon Bradley admires the work of committed Catholic content producers. “They don’t compromise on the essentials of the faith,” he notes, “and their work is frontline evangelisation in a way that we haven’t experienced before. The Catholic Church is right there in people’s homes, on their phones, on the train – all the places it’s always been – but in a new and challenging way.”

In his own work within the Ordinariate, Deacon Bradley believes that the internet and new media made things possible from a practical standpoint. “The establishment of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham happened almost entirely online,” he explains. “The first ordinations, the documents, the news reports – everything centred around blogs, the official website, Twitter, and Facebook. We’re spread across the UK and so it’s vital that we use technology to create something of the community that is normally obvious with a less geographically dispersed group.”

For someone working with a widely scattered group of clerics and laity like Deacon Bradley, the Ordinariate works despite the physical distances that separate Bradley and his team. Yet the reverse is also true: those who are not in large urban centres like London can still find a public voice among their fellow Catholics. This would have seemed unimaginable a generation ago.

In a village outside of Salisbury, Sean McCarney is a rising favourite among Catholic podcasters and their listeners. McCarney is an air traffic controller, formerly with the Royal Air Force but now as a civilian, and a reverter to the Catholic faith. His podcasts have become so well-liked that he was recently nominated for Best Male Podcast at the Catholic New Media Awards held this summer – a fact he only learned about while on holiday in Italy because he took a few moments to check his Facebook wall. McCarney regales his listeners with tales of his little girl’s adventures and shares his observations as he tries to raise her as a good Catholic.

Like many Catholics who are active in new media, McCarney believes that what is happening now is a generational shift which has parallels throughout Catholicism.

“There has been a disconnect over the past 25 years,” he says, “between the unchanging doctrines of the Church and the social fads and fashions of a certain generation of priests and bishops, who seem to have shied away from preaching some of the more uncomfortable demands of our faith.”

The growth of orthodox Catholic content on the internet is changing that, though McCarney feels that there still needs to be greater awareness of the wealth of material available, as well as a separating of the sheep from the goats. He worries that the faithful can be drawn in by “sites that state that they are Catholic, and yet have no basis or grounding in the Catholic faith, or which openly defy the teachings of the Church. To proclaim one’s Catholicity and yet to be so openly in dissent with the teachings of the Church is the summit of hypocrisy.”

McCarney notes that the explosion in material available for Catholics to consult on Catholic issues has been tremendous not only internationally, but also in Britain specifically. “Ten years ago,” he recalls, “there were, perhaps, four or five print publications in the UK… but even then, their sales were limited to very few practising Catholics and their reach was limited: frankly, most people just have no or little interest in a Catholic print periodical.”

With the experience of the Papal Visit to the UK last year, the BBC and other mainstream media outlets in Britain found themselves being openly chastised or outright ignored by their supposed constituencies for unfair coverage of both the Holy Father and Catholicism, since other, orthodox content was available via other sources. “UK new media producers went into overdrive to defend the Papal visit,” McCarney recalls, “and to try to correct some of the wilder misconceptions in, and hysteria whipped up by, the secular media. Even if these podcasts and blogs were not being read by the Dawkins’, Hitchens and Robertsons of the country,” he admits, “they gave Catholics mutual support in the face of a continual anti-Catholic onslaught.”

As is true throughout the new media community, many of those Catholics who are listening to McCarney’s podcasts today probably found him through the efforts of other, well-established Catholic podcasters, such as Mac and Katherine Barron. Converts to Catholicism, and residents of the small town of Swainsboro, Georgia, they have just wrapped up the recording of the 206th episode of their award-winning podcast, entitled appropriately “Catholic In A Small Town”.

The Barrons produce a podcast combining tales of their own happenings, entertainment reviews, and discussions of matters affecting Catholics, in a conversational, often humorous fashion. Over several years their chatty and personable mix of serious and comic matters has won them a significant following as part of Catholic new media group SQPN, whose founder and CEO, Father Roderick Vonhögen, came to international prominence in 2005 podcasting from the Vatican in the days leading up to the death of Pope John Paul II. Catholic new media has evolved significantly from the days when Vatican Radio was one of the only outlets available internationally or online for Catholic content on a wider scale.

“Being podcasters has made Mac and I, living in a small town with very few Catholics, feel connected to the Catholic world at large,” says Katherine Barron. “We would never have known the people we have come to know without this outlet,” she notes, adding that a great deal of credit “must be given to Father Roderick and to Greg Willits for setting the tone for Catholic podcasting.  They are both fearless in different ways, and both have inspired me and Mac more than they will ever know…possibly even more than I realise.”

Like many Catholic lay podcasters, Barron sees the work that she and her husband do as a gift and an opportunity they have been given to reach out to others. “We are unbelievably blessed to be a part of this,” she says, “to have been supported by our listeners and the new media community. It has provided an outlet for those ‘talents’ that we heard about a couple of weeks ago at Mass,” she notes, referring to Christ’s parable of the servants who are given talents by their master in his absence, and how each servant uses those talents differently. “I hope we are working with the Holy Spirit to double them…and more.”

But not all is rosy in Catholic new media. The lack of participation in or even the promotion of it at the diocesan level is something that frustrates many prominent practitioners, including Barron. “We have tried to get our local diocesan paper to publish an article about the new television pilot [we were involved in] – or even about us as podcasters,” she explains. “I have not heard at all from them, either in response to inquiries or in general. And as far as I know we are the only podcasters in our diocese, and we have been doing this for almost six years.”

“I think from an entrepreneurial and innovation standpoint, we haven’t even scratched the surface in Catholic new media,” Matthew Warner says. “We’re trying to find the ways that new media communication is going to be a game changer for how effectively a unique organisation like the Catholic Church communicates. Because it’s going to be a total game changer, we just haven’t realised it yet. There are some genius ways it’s going to help us accomplish our goals better. This is one of the ways the Church needs to become a leader again – not a late-adopter. It’s not just about ‘media’, it’s about technology. It’s about doing things drastically better, which should be pretty important to us.”

Warner acknowledges the progress made in Catholic new media. But much remains to be done. “My assessment is that it’s good, bad and ugly,” says Warner. “It’s ugly because we’re doing it badly, but it’s good that we’re doing it anyway. We have to crawl before we can walk, and there are a few out there beginning to walk really, really well. So it’s exciting to see the potential of all of this for once we get a good crowd running with it.”

Father Sticha believes that the use of outlets like Twitter and Facebook by Catholics will prove of critical importance as a source of support, as societal and governmental sources take positions which are contrary to Catholic teaching.  “As we go forward and our rights as Christians continue to be eroded,” he notes, “I think that social media will become a powerful outlet for fighting against the secular atheistic movements that want to silence and oppress the Church. It’s not a question of if oppression will come, as it’s already here in some parts of the world, but how will we use social media to defend ourselves and proclaim the Gospel when it comes to us.”

Technophiles often buy into the perception, perpetuated by the so-called mainstream media, that devout Catholics are stuck in the past. Far from living in the catacombs, both the religious and lay members of the Church are taking advantage of technology. They are learning how to create a network of people with a common purpose: to spread the Gospel, aid those in need, and combat issues like moral relativism, materialism, and heterodoxy.

While much remains to be done, it is clearly an exciting time to be a Catholic nerd.