How the Church meets 21st-century realities

Sandals and donkeys were essential tools for the first evangelizers. Today, it’s apps, websites and webinars that get the word out.

Even Pope Benedict XVI began tweeting in 2012 with the handle @Pontifex — “bridge builder” in Latin. “Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart,” was his first tweet.

The tweet was not just a way to try something new; it was an attempt to use modern means to expand the Church’s reach. Through Twitter even the lowliest among us could receive personal messages directly from the pope.

To be relevant in the 21st century, the Catholic Church must manage to be unchanging in teaching while evolving with the times, and in many ways this already is happening.

Websites for all

As the Church tries to remain relevant, even longtime secretaries who fondly recall dial phones have become a part of the communication revolution. For Catholic parishes this means websites have become essential.

The good news, according to Katie Herzing, the digital product sales associate lead for Faith in Action Websites, is that computer technology has gotten easier to use. [Editor’s note: Faith in Action Websites is a subsidiary of Our Sunday Visitor.] She helps some of the 17,000 Catholic churches in the United States build new websites and learn how to manage them.

“Websites from the 1990s usually look old-fashioned and are hard to navigate,” she said. Managing the old sites also required a grasp of technology beyond the average person’s ability. “Products today are user-friendly,” Herzing explained.

Church websites have become essential, she said, for the 20-30 age group that goes online to find everything from restaurants to churches. “That’s how they get started choosing a community,” Herzing said. “It’s no longer just a neighborhood church. In 2014 Pope Francis said the streets of our time are online, so that is were the Church needs to be.”

Increased accessibility

Father Mitch Pacwa, EWTN radio and television host and Our Sunday Visitor author, remembers well the way the world used to be but, at almost 68 years old, he is embracing the way it is in 2017. One way he does this is by evangelizing through webinars. “This allows us to gather crowds from around the world,” he said. “You can watch it live and make comments or ask questions for the sense of being there — or you can watch it later. It’s a simple way to reach a lot of folks fairly inexpensively.”

Simple, inexpensive and accessible have become key to the culture. For instance, the plethora of Catholic apps that range in price from free to a few dollars offer everything from movies and Catholic crowdfunding to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, prayers, daily Mass readings, Bible studies, news and audiobooks.

MassTimes.org even helps people get to Mass by locating churches and Mass times. There’s a “Mass Near Me” feature so people on the road can know if there’s a Mass on the way to their destination. By clicking on a specific church, information pops up, including confession and adoration times and directions to the church.

Modern means of survival

In some small towns, magnificent churches built to glorify God for generations have become fatalities of modern times. Outward migrations have created many dying parishes. Some pastors, however, are using 21st-century means to keep their parishes alive.

St. Mary’s in the town of Hague, North Dakota, population 67, has a congregation of 74 families — many of whom are not from the small town. They needed $212,000 last year for a new roof, so pastor Father Jason Signalness made a “Go Fund Me” page titled “Fixing Mary’s Roof.”

“When an urgent need arises in these small parishes, the people generally know they have to step up, at least financially,” he explained. “But replacing the roof is more than the parishioners could afford.” As of June 5, more than $198,000 had been raised.

Another church embracing the new times is St. Anthony of Padua of Hoven, South Dakota. The church, built in 1922 and affectionately called the “Cathedral of the Prairie,” seats 1,000 people, yet it resides in a town of only 407 residents. There are 200 registered parish families, but half are widows or widowers.

Pastor Father Kevin Doyle holds an annual Christmas on the Prairie symphony and choir concert that raises more than $30,000. “I also ask parishioners to consider the church as one of their children when writing their wills,” he said. “And now that we have fiber optic [internet access], people can get out of the big cities where people are shooting each other and come to peaceful Hoven.”

Father Doyle is also working on live-streaming baptisms, weddings and other events for out-of-town friends and relatives. “This can help keep the church alive,” he said. “There will be a ‘donate’ tab on the screen.”

The place of bookstores

Churches are not the only places struggling to survive. Catholic bookstores, like all bookstores, are in serious decline. Yet, Ian Rutherford, owner of online retailer Aquinas & More Catholic Goods, has found modern means to thrive. He currently has a second job to help make ends meet but expects to support his family of 13 exclusively on the store very soon.

In 2002 Aquinas & More began as a brick and mortar store in Colorado Springs that also had an online presence. There were four stores then — too many for the area. Aquinas & More went exclusively online in 2012 after almost closing completely.

Rutherford graduated with a degree in political philosophy but has a knack for computers. Before opening his store, he worked as a computer consultant for large companies. “I watched Amazon start up and saw how it succeeded in the ’90s and thought it would be possible to do the same thing with a Catholic company,” he said.

The biggest challenge for businesses, according to him, is adapting to customers whose first reaction is to go online. “If you are not online in some fashion, it’s hard to get customers from the younger demographics,” Rutherford said. “People under 30 may show up in a physical store, but they start out online.”

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When he had the physical store, Rutherford said he treated it like a Catholic evangelization center. He held events such as St. Nicholas parties, a thank-you dinner for priests, book studies and book fairs in local churches.

He encourages other Catholic store owners to network through means such as Catholic Marketing Network and through his website, HowToRunACatholicStore.com, where he shares ideas to help other store owners prosper.

Other advice he gives is to adapt to technology to prevent loss of customers. “We were one of the first to have a blog and have a large Facebook presence,” he said. “We have Instagram and Pinterest accounts, too, since they are so picture-driven. If people are there, we should be there.”

Rutherford said he still believes Catholic stores have a place. “But we need be more proactive,” he said. “One of the big challenges going forward is how do you personally spread the Gospel in a digital world?”

Patti Maguire Armstrong writes from North Dakota.