Priests navigate ‘the digital continent’

As Facebook turns 10 this month (the social media giant officially was founded Feb. 4, 2004), priests who maintain a strong presence on the network say it is a vital tool for evangelization.

Using both personal and ministry accounts, priests regularly reach out to thousands of Facebook friends — including some they haven’t met in person — with the Good News in the form of articles, photos and videos. But social media evangelization, while beneficial, brings with it its own challenges and responsibilities for clergy.

An online presence

With the overwhelming popularity of social media in our digital world — especially among young people — it only makes sense that priests would join the fold.

“The Church has asked us to step out on the digital continent and to have a presence there,” said Oblate of the Virgin Mary Father Jeremy Paulin, vocation director and provincial councilor for the oblates in Boston. “The way technology has expanded so dramatically in recent years, there are people who perhaps that’s the only way to reach them in our time.”

Father Mike Schmitz, director of Newman Catholic Campus Ministries and chaplain at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, agreed that social media makes it possible to reach many people with the Gospel.

“Years ago you would have to be Mother Angelica to start your own TV channel or TV show,” he said. “Now, all you have to do is sign up for an account and you can start bringing the truth and the love of Christ through these other social media outlets.”

While some priests are on Twitter, most find Facebook to be more effective. Along with sharing the Gospel, they can also stay in touch with family and friends, create a dialogue and better understand public opinion.

Father Michael O’Loughlin, pastor of Holy Protection of the Mother of God Byzantine Catholic Church in Denver, has friends who aren’t practicing Catholics, yet he hopes that he can use Facebook to evangelize to reach them.

“I’m not approaching them directly as a priest who wants to lead someone to Christ but indirectly,” he said. “They shouldn’t feel offended or attacked because my posts are going to everybody. They’re seeing that not as something that is directed at them. If the Holy Spirit wants to, he can direct it at them.”

Potential dangers

Because of the increasing number of clergy active on social media sites, many dioceses have developed guidelines that give the dos and don’ts of online behavior.

Seminaries, too, instruct future priests about online image and behavior. At Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., for example, seminarians take a course on the “priest as a public person,” in which a priest’s online presence and the need for a paper trail are discussed, said Father Kenneth Brighenti, vice rector for pastoral formation.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also has its own “Social Media Guidelines,” in which the bishops state, “The Church can use social media to encourage respect, dialogue and honest relationships — in other words, ‘true friendship.’”

It must be approached as a “powerful means of evangelization,” and the Church’s role in providing a Christian perspective on digital literacy must be considered, the guidelines say.

Because social media sites are public, priests need to be careful about what they post, how they respond to others and how others respond to them, Father Paulin said. Priests could be exploited, or spend too much time on social media, or post something that doesn’t properly reflect the Faith. Personal social media sites of priests and other Church personnel, the U.S. bishops state, should reflect Catholic values.

“Church personnel should be encouraged to understand that they are witnessing to the Faith through all of their social networking, whether ‘public’ or ‘private,’” the guidelines state. These guidelines are a synthesis of best practices, which, except for where they pertain to civil law, are not binding on dioceses.

In California, the Diocese of San Bernardino’s social media guidelines are not meant to discourage priests from using the outlets, said John Andrews, diocesan spokesperson.

Rather, the goal is to avoid priests posting teaching that is not in line with the Faith, or posting too much personal information. Or to, of course, avoid lying, gossiping, bullying, stalking or using inappropriate language.

Father Schmitz said he tries to promote intelligent discussion, but if responses become rude or disruptive, he deletes them.

Father Andrew Vogel of the Diocese of Winona, Minn., said his diocese doesn’t discourage priests from using social media and other means to spread the Gospel.

“But at the same time there are a lot of checks and guidelines in place to protect the children and those who may be vulnerable based on things that have happened in the past that we need to be well aware of,” he said.

While following guidelines is important, priests noted that prudence also guides social media behavior.

Father Schmitz said priests who want to use social media should know what they want to do and why.

Concern about minors

In its Information and Communication Technology guidelines, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia directs that adult leaders, including priests, who communicate with minors about their ministry through Facebook or other social-networking sites “should create a separate account and/or group for this specific use whenever possible.”

The guidelines also direct that “written permission from a parent/guardian should be obtained prior to a minor’s participation on a social-networking site, such as Facebook, sponsored by a parish organization. Minors should not be given access to the private or personal postings of an adult. All interactions should reflect the ministerial/professional role of the adult.”

Meeting where they are

While Father O’Loughlin participates in social media, his main goal is to encourage his friends to get off the social media network and to meet in person at the parish. Through his posts, he shares the times, dates and locations of parish events.

He senses a need for real social contact among frequent social media users, he said.

“If they’re spending too much time on social media, there’s an inherent loneliness,” he added. “One of the ways that we can be the Church, and individual priests can be encouraging throughout the world, is to use social media to get people off social media.”

But for the millions of people not abandoning the virtual world, social media offers a different way to be “a light to the nations.”

“If social media is a place where people are, then we’d want to be there, too,” said Father Melancon. “Our mission is hearts and bringing the Gospel to them. We do that any place where hearts are found.”

Susan Klemond writes from Minnesota.