Parishes, new media and the New Evangelization

Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has been stressing that the most urgent reform in the Church is a missionary metamorphosis capable of reaching those in the “existential peripheries.” 

“I dream of a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything,” he wrote in his programmatic apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” “so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures, can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than her self-preservation.” 

One of the important parts of that missionary transformation is getting the Church at all levels to take advantage of the new social communications media to share the Gospel. 

This is a technological conversion that the popes have been modeling from the top, in the revamping of Vatican websites, the launching of papal Twitter accounts, the development of state-of-the-art applications for mobile devices, and a recently-established committee of 11 experts to re-examine the Vatican’s entire communications infrastructure to ensure that it is excelling where it should. 

But this missionary technological transformation is also something that Pope Francis has been seeking to catalyze with his words as well. 

In his message for World Communications Day in January, Pope Francis noted that the “networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances. The Internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God.” 

By means of the Internet and social media, he stressed, “the Christian message can reach to the ends of the earth,” and in a special way reach out to those who might be distant from God and the Church and incapable of being reached by traditional means. 

He summoned Catholics to become electronic good Samaritans with the charity and courage to cross the “digital highway,” which he said is “teeming with people who are often hurting, looking for Salvation or hope,” and help them by “bringing warmth and stirring hearts.” 

He finished by praying that Catholics will “boldly become citizens of the digital world” and calling on parishes in particular to respond to the “great and thrilling challenge” of using new communications technology to evangelize those who spend much of their time in this cyberspatial areopagus. 

“Keeping the doors of our churches open,” he wrote, “also means keeping them open in the digital environment so that people, whatever their situation in life, can enter, and so that the Gospel can go out to reach everyone.” 

This papal digital “great commission,” however, is easier to talk about than implement. 

The priests and faithful in many parishes are not yet adequately trained to respond to this papal challenge. Some are still living in the age of the fax machine. Others are populated by “immigrants” to the digital continent, who don’t yet adequately understand the language, culture and environment to be capable of doing much more than survive. 

This is where a great new book, “Transforming Parish Communications,” just published by Our Sunday Visitor, fills a really obvious need. 

Its forward is written by Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who says that this 196-page work shows “why it is critical for parishes, as hubs of the New Evangelization, to embrace new media,” which will help priests and parish leaders “overcome any hesitancy about embracing these new methods” and facilitate “all parishes to have a program for engaging those on the digital continent and leading them to be transformed by the grace of the Sacraments and the love of the Christian community within the Church.”  

The book is written by Scot Landry, my twin brother, and synthesizes his years of experience as the Secretary for Catholic Media in the Archdiocese of Boston as well as his time setting up and running training sessions in the use of media technology for the archdiocese and other Catholic organizations. 

I readily admit to having an incorrigible bias in favor of my monozygotic better half, with whom for 32 weeks I shared my mother’s womb and with whom I have in common all my DNA. But even if I had a Jacob-and-Esau complex and was totally biased against him, I would have to admit as a pastor that he’s just written a really good, timely and most helpful work. 

Scot begins by describing how the new media technologies are among the most effective means to scatter the seeds of the Gospel today in order to reach inactive, infrequent and ex-Catholics where many of them are and to share with them and others, through photos and videos, invitations and many forms of personal witness, the beauty of living the Catholic faith. 

He then considers the various reasons why many parishes and Catholics have been culturally hesitant to take up these means and provides compelling responses on how to overcome those fears and obstacles. 

Then he gets practical on how to transform parishes and parish cultures to become “animating hubs” that train, inspire and help the faithful to become “agents of the New Evangelization” through social media. 

He gets into the nitty-gritty of best practices with regard to launching such initiatives, revamping websites and establishing blogs, using email, Twitter, Facebook and other new means effectively, synthesizing the award-winning work from parishes across the country. 

One of his goals is to form and inspire parishioners to tithe, or dedicate 10 percent, of their social media postings implicitly or explicitly to sharing the faith.

With more than a billion Catholics and 200,000 parishes, he said, “The Church can be, and should be, the world’s largest social network.” 

This book, in response to Pope Francis’ summons, is one contribution to help it become so. I’d encourage you to get it, read it and share it. 

Anchor columnist Father Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River.

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts