Practicing what they preach: Priests apply New Evangelization through social media

Gospel, Catechism, church events, outreach available to parishioners via blogs, Facebook, Twitter, other sites

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HOLY BLOGS AND TWEETS Bishop Richard F. Stika, center, is surrounded by diocesan priests who join him in blogging, on Twitter and other social media sites. From left are Father Michael Cummins, Father David Boettner, Bishop Stika, Father Steve Pawelk, and Father Christian Mathis. In back, from right are Father Brent Shelton, Father Aaron Wessman, Father Dustin Collins and Father David Carter. Photo by Deacon Patrick Murphy-Racey

The evangelical role of the clergy was simple in the days of small communities and a time when everyone would flock to the Church to hear the Gospel. Priests simply delivered a message that descended on the ears of eager parishioners.

As times have changed, with media playing a greater role in parishioners’ lives and more people are tempted to stray from the Church, the method priests use to shepherd their flocks has had to adapt. The popular weekly parish bulletin column now has morphed into online blogs. These writings are accessible to people everywhere, not just those who attend Mass.

“I think that we as the Church can no longer expect people to just come to us. This luxury is gone. People may come when they have to for the sacraments or a wedding or funeral but then they will walk away. We need to be active in going to them and in sharing the words of faith and the Gospel,” said Father Michael Cummins, the Diocese of Knoxville’s director of vocations who also serves at the Catholic Center on the East Tennessee State University campus.

“Christians must make sure that our words are heard in the public space. We need to have confidence that the words we have to share—which should always be the words of the Gospel—bring life and light to people and that these are words that people are yearning for,” Father Cummins added.

Father Cummins, like many other priests in the diocese have turned to blogging as a way to draw parishioners back into the Church and to connect with active Catholics in a new way. In addition to his blog, The Alternate Path, Father Cummins manages his own Twitter and Facebook accounts to reach out to college-age Catholics.

Bishop Richard F. Stika, whose blog, He Dwells Among Us, also appears on the Diocese of Knoxville web page (www.dioknox.org) and the East Tennessee Catholic website (www.ETCatholic.org), understands the importance of blogging as a communications medium for the New Evangelization called for by Pope Benedict XVI and supports priests who reach out in this way.

“The pope has asked all bishops to utilize social media. It’s a very good opportunity for us. The Gospel hasn’t changed, but what has changed is how we present it,” Bishop Stika said.

Bishop Stika has been blogging for more than two years and noted that some of the Church’s leaders have been as well, such as Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Cardinal Seán O’Malley and Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz, former Diocese of Knoxville bishop.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is taking social media seriously as a tool to evangelize, according to Bishop Stika, who said bishops have received workshop instruction on the fine points of social media.

Bishop Stika praised priests in the diocese for taking it upon themselves to engage parishioners and the public through blogs, Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets. He pointed to Father Christian Mathis, who has received awards for his blogging.

“Without anyone mandating it, they’re doing it and they’re creative. It’s a great tool for apologetics,” Bishop Stika said.

Bishop Stika and Father Cummins aren’t alone in their venture into social media. More priests and even Pope Benedict have their own Twitter pages. The pope Tweeted for the first time in December, asking “How can we celebrate the Year of Faith in our daily lives?”

“All priests must be missionaries. Blogging is one way—not the only way and we must never underestimate the one-on-one encounters— for a priest to be a missionary to our people,” Father Cummins said.

This Year of Faith has been a focal point for Father Mathis of St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Lenoir City, who also pens the Blessed is the Kingdom and Life at 25 blogs. Father Mathis said in addition to Bishop Stika, other priests within the diocese have been very supportive of this new evangelical path.

Life at 25, which Father Mathis called “the Bishop’s idea,” serves as a resource for Catholics during the Year of Faith and marks the Diocese of Knoxville’s 25th anniversary this year. The blog has examined many subjects; among them are Vatican II documents and the Catechism.

Father Mathis said upcoming topics for Life at 25 will include the history of the diocese in honor of this 25th Anniversary year.

“I’ve discovered things I didn’t even know,” Father Mathis said. “One person that encouraged me to continue blogging was Father David Boettner. He encouraged me to continue writing because I was reaching people on a daily basis.”

Father Boettner, rector of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a vicar general for the diocese, authors Peregrinus, a blog that chronicled his recent four-month pilgrimage in Europe, including a 600-mile walk and studies at the Vatican.

He began blogging just before departing in July on his pilgrimage because he wanted to share his journey with his parishioners.

“I didn’t want them to feel like I had just disappeared and I wanted to share my experiences with them,” Father Boettner said, noting Peregrinus also has been an education tool.

But Sacred Heart’s younger parishioners weren’t the only ones engaged in Peregrinus.

“What I was surprised by is the number of parishioners over 60 who read my blog,” Father Boettner.

Although he returned in November, Father Boettner said a pilgrimage never has to end, so he will continue blogging through Peregrinus as the faith journey continues.

“Ultimately the pilgrim is seeking an encounter with God, and that can happen anywhere,” he said.

Another active blogger is Father Brent Shelton. His blog, Father Shelton, began as a way to share the exact wording of his homilies with parishioners at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Alcoa. It has since evolved into an outlet available to parishioners to ask their priest questions regarding their faith.

“It reaches a certain kind of parishioner. It reaches our middle-aged parishioner. They like a blog because I can address all kinds of issues. I am able to go more in-depth on topics than I can in a homily,” Father Shelton said.

Blogs are different, he noted, than parish websites.

“Blogs are personal. It’s a way to engage with a particular person. People who read them have an opportunity to get involved in a dialogue,” he said.

One of Father Shelton’s personal favorite blogs is Canterbury Tales by Dr. Taylor Marshall. “He comes at things from a different perspective. He always answers questions. You don’t have to have a background in theology to appreciate it.”

The Diocese of Knoxville has a large social media presence. With nearly 1,000 fans on Facebook and more than 1,500 followers on Twitter, news can be readily shared among the Catholic community in East Tennessee.

Father Shelton said social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook have proven to be an excellent form of communication with high school-aged parishioners. “It’s the only way to do it with the youth now, especially with non-Catholics,” he said.

Father David Carter, the diocese’s vice chancellor for canonical affairs and associate pastor at All Saints Church, has been blogging since 2008. He shares information via his Praedica Verbum blog, which began as a journal of his life as a student priest while in Rome.

He realized early on that blogging was a new avenue of communication and his forecast has been affirmed—and then some. Blogging has prompted a social media wave fueled by Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, MySpace, Google Plus+ and others.

“People want to feel connected. People have a need to feel connected,” Father Carter said. “While blogging is more of a news outlet, Facebook is more of an evangelization tool. Blogging tends to be passive—people come to it, but Facebook is more active.”

“I’m on Facebook and I use Facebook more than blogging to post content, including video and anything involving the Catholic Church. I have seen social media overload. I’m not interested in where someone ate or that they’re waiting in line. I’m inundated with requests to play Farmville and things like that. I have no interest in that. But I am active in liking content if it’s appropriate. I’m happy to share, like and comment,” Father Carter said.

Father Dustin Collins, who was ordained a priest in June and is the associate pastor at St. Mary Church in Oak Ridge, writes the blog Maiorem Hac Dilectionem. He said he uses his blog to post all his homilies and also uses Twitter and Facebook to communicate with parishioners at the church and St. Mary School.

He especially uses Twitter to communicate messages regarding holy days of obligation and church announcements.

“I also try to write a small reflection for the day,” Father Collins said about his Twitter page.

Other blogs written by priests in the diocese include City Father by Immaculate Conception pastor Father Ronald Franco, Union/Grainger Catholic Missionary Beginnings by Father Steve Pawelk, and Cognition of a Roman Catholic Missioner by Father Aaron Wessman. Father Pawelk and Father Wessman are Glenmary priests who serve for the diocese at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Catholic Mission in Maynardville and Blessed John Paul II Catholic Mission in Rutledge.

Links to these blogs can be found at www.dioknox.org and www.
ETCatholic.org.

With assistance from Sacred Heart parishioner Pam Rhoades, who is a communications professional, Father Boettner has linked his blog to other electronic communications the parish uses to connect with members.

So he sees firsthand the impact of social media.

“From an evangelization standpoint, it extended the reach of the parish far beyond the boundaries of the parish. It made it easier for our parishioners to be evangelizers,” Father Boettner said. n

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