By Dennis Poust
When Pope Benedict XVI offered praise recently for the "digital generation," and specifically the potential of the fast-growing social networking scene, he was not so much urging a new evangelization as he was acknowledging that it already exists in full force.
Social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and others have transformed the way young people (and, increasingly, the over-30 set) communicate with each other. It is also rapidly transforming how Catholics interact with each other across the globe and how they approach evangelization.
"The new digital technologies are, indeed, bringing about fundamental shifts in patterns of communication and human relationships. These changes are particularly evident among those young people who have grown up with the new technologies and are at home in a digital world that often seems quite foreign to those of us who, as adults, have had to learn to understand and appreciate the opportunities it has to offer for communications," the pope said in his Jan. 23 message for World Communications Day, which will be celebrated May 24.
"These technologies are truly a gift to humanity, and we must endeavor to ensure that the benefits they offer are put at the service of all human individuals and communities, especially those who are most disadvantaged and vulnerable," he said.
A growing Catholic community on Facebook, a wildly popular social networking site with 150 million active users worldwide, is doing just that. Users interact in networks and with "friends" who have permission to view their personal profile pages. Many young people use it as a primary means of communicating. Increasingly, though, older folks are getting more involved, keeping up with their current friends by checking their "status bar" throughout the day and also reacquainting with elementary, high school and college buddies. Facebook's fastest growing demographic now is users older than 30.
In addition to membership in "networks" based on hometown or school, users can also join groups with others throughout the world who share a mutual interest, whether it be as a fan of a movie or rock star or, increasingly, of a Catholic devotion like the Divine Mercy or the Rosary, a religious community, the pope or almost anything else Catholic.
Juan J. Carmona, a member of the Knights of Columbus Council at Harvard University (where Facebook was founded), said his council has been using Facebook as a means of evangelization for about two years. In addition to some K of C-specific groups, the Harvard Council sponsors various others, including "Roman Catholics (Global)," which he says is the largest Catholic group on Facebook with 37,800 members, and another, "Catholic Resources on Facebook," which serves as a clearinghouse for all things Catholic, linking to some 230 Catholic groups on Facebook and 60 more resources on the Web.
"These sites have been instrumental for promoting fellowship across many borders so that people have the opportunity to meet, share ideas and work together to build a 'civilization of love' -- in the words of our Supreme Knight, Carl Anderson," said Carmona, a Harvard doctoral student.
The 28-year-old Mexican native added, "Certainly, in this modern age of electronics and digital information, it is every Catholic's responsibility to use all means of technology and communication to help spread Christ's message of love and salvation."
Brian Caulfield is editor of Fathers for Good, a K of C Web initiative launched this past August to strengthen fathers and their families. A generation older than Carmona, it didn't immediately occur to Caulfield to use Facebook to build his organization.
"One of the young IT guys who helps with design said we had to get a Facebook page because it was the best way to reach young people," Caulfield explained.
"Given the name -- Facebook -- I assumed it was a dating site and put him off until I spoke to some other young people working at the Knights, one of whom is becoming a nun, who told me they also had a Facebook account. So, I decided to give it a try," he said.
Caulfield said he is "pleasantly surprised with the number of faithful Catholic groups on Facebook," and noted that he has built a large and active Fathers for Good group of both men and women. He uses the Facebook group to drive traffic to the Fathers for Good site.
"Fathers for Good has regular featured topics that coincide with the Church calendar or news of the day," he said. "When a new topic is planned, I send out a notice to the Facebook group, asking for input and suggestions, and people to interview. Examples include a Valentine's feature on how husbands proposed to their wives. Through Facebook members, we got some very good stories."
Caulfield now spends about two hours per week actively seeking out new Fathers for Good members through Facebook, inviting friends of his group members and asking them to spread the word.
For building his initiative, Caulfield said Facebook has had little downside. "Just like the Internet at large, there are ads that pop up on Facebook that border on immoral, and I have had to remove some people from the Fathers for Good group for questionable posts or photos, but the overall experience has been very positive," he said. "We have been able to build an online community of Catholics who share an interest in strengthening fatherhood and the family."
The breadth of the Catholic presence on Facebook can be stunning. Whether it be "Catholics for Clerics in Cassocks," "Chastity is a Lifestyle!," "RCIA -- Converts to Catholicism," "Thomas Merton Fan Club," "Catholic and Proud," or "We're Not Crazy, We're Just Catholic," chances are there is a group out there for you.
Even Opus Dei, the personal prelature stereotyped in the media as ultrasecretive, has at least two groups, one dedicated to founder St. Josemaria Escriva and one to Opus Dei itself. While both sites are "unofficial," meaning not directly sponsored by Opus Dei, the organization has found them to be useful, because of the ability of members to share ideas and connect freely, said Brian Finnerty, U.S. communications director for Opus Dei.
"People in the Opus Dei Facebook group are excited about Opus Dei's message of finding God in daily life, and they welcome the chance Facebook gives them to talk about it. Facebook is a new technology for using Christianity's oldest, most powerful evangelization tool -- people telling their own stories," he said.
The group attracts prayer requests, questions on how to get in touch with Opus Dei in a particular city or simply expressions of appreciation.
"Many people in Opus Dei have their own personal Facebook accounts. It is especially helpful for keeping in touch with students," Finnerty added. "The reality is that students sometimes use Facebook as a primary communications tool. Many students can only be reached using Facebook, and don't check their e-mail; others can only be reached using e-mail, and don't use Facebook. If you want to reach everyone, you need to have Facebook."
Dennis Poust writes from New York. All interviews for this story were conducted through Facebook.
Dr. Sebastian Mahfood, associate professor of Intercultural Studies at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis and an expert in "cyberethics," offered some pointers and "netiquette" for Catholic groups diving headfirst into the digital sea:
"Among the standard rules are to lurk before leaping -- that is, to try to establish the mood and context of any conversation … before stirring the pot, to resolve personal differences privately rather than publicly [and] to seek the greater good of the community rather than the partial good of the self."