Upon the news of the attack in Dallas that left five police officers dead, the bishop of the city, Monsignor Kevin Farrell, posted on Twitter a video-message denouncing this senseless act of violence and inviting the faithful to pray for the victims. A plethora of messages of condolences and hope, as well as pictures, links and articles coupled by appeals to reflection, rapidly filled his home page, shared by hundreds of faithful. Efficient communication on social media is practically indispensable for the leaders of the three Catholic communities of the United States in many areas: in the case of messages of hope in the face of tragic events, before images or videos testifying to courage and faith; the footage of a concert held inside a church or parish initiatives alike. Bishops and priests seek to grasp the opportunities offered by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social platforms, seeking to avoid – whenever possible – all related risks.
New opportunities. “In our times there are people who can only be reached through the web”, explained Fr Jeremy Paulin, director of vocations for the Oblates of Boston. “Technology has changed people’s way of living. It’s important for the Church to be present wherever people gather – both in physical and virtual terms, to initiate or continue a conversation. Questions or doubts can be raised on an online platform, and they are no less urgent or important.”
Online evangelization. Father Mike Schmitz, director of the Newman Catholic Campus Ministries, chaplain at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, added: “Until a few years ago, the evangelisation of large audiences required targeted television programs, while today it’s possible to share the Gospel with the public at large through social media.” This is what Fr Michael O’Loughlin, parish priest of the “Holy Care” Catholic church in Denver does, with his limited means.
The priest has many friends who are not practising Catholics, and he hopes to strengthen their faith through messages posted on his FB page.
“Whenever I’m present on this virtual meeting place I approach them on tiptoes. I don’t think they feel offended or attacked. My messages are open to everyone. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit to guide the messages towards them.”
From New York to Los Angeles. A large number of US bishops regularly publish multimedia content on social networks followed by thousands of people. Let is suffice to think of Monsignor José Horacio Gómez, archbishop of Los Angeles, specialized in themes linked to migration, Monsignor Seán Patrick O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, and Monsignor Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, who recently shared his experience at the World Youth Day in Krakow. Some of the most popular priests actively present on the Internet in the United States are Father Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire Ministries (he uses his Facebook page to post images of saints, videos, and links to his blog, articles and photographs); Jesuit Father James Martin, editor-in-chief of America Magazine (he created a community that meets on his Facebook page where he regularly posts articles, photographs and short messages); as well as Jesuit Fr Mitch Pacwa, founder, President of Ignatius Productions (he avails himself of the Facebook platform to promote content, disseminate video conferences, illustrate the story of the saints and announce parish celebrations.)
Guidelines. Given the increasing number of priests actively present online on social networks, many dioceses have compiled guidelines to define the details of their presence in the digital realm. The US Bishops’ Conference, in its document “Social Media Guidelines”,
underlined that the Church “can also use social media to prompt dialogue, mutual respect, and authentic friendships.”
Also seminaries offer specific training courses focusing on the most appropriate behaviours and images to be shared with the faithful. The North-American Church extends her glance to the future also through these tools.