Catholic bishops get crash course in social media
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BALTIMORE -- The majority of Catholics use social media, but only the most ardent visit Catholic sites, which typically do a poor job of attracting fallen-away Catholics and those searching for a faith connection.
The statistics came from a study released just before the annual Baltimore meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. About 25 bishops arrived early to learn from bloggers and other social media experts how to have a more effective online presence.
The gathering, sponsored by the bishops' communications office, was modeled on a similar session held last year at the Vatican.
"Catholic media, at this point, is very effectively preaching to the choir ... and to the very small percentage that agree with you on almost everything," said panelist Terry Mattingly, religion columnist for the Scripps-Howard news service and co-founder of GetReligion.org, which analyzes religion coverage in secular media.
But if a bishop is trying to engage in evangelization without a sophisticated social media outreach, he said, "you have a promising future in ministry to the Amish."
The study from the bishops' research agency, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, showed that 62 percent of Catholic adults, including 37 percent of those 70 and older, have a profile on Facebook. Two-thirds of Catholic adults, including 84 percent of those 30 and younger, visit YouTube. Yet just 5 percent of Catholic adults with Internet access follow blogs related to the Catholic faith, though that number rises to 13 percent who attend Mass weekly. Despite a vigorous Vatican website and countless official and unofficial Catholic sites, 53 percent of more than 1,000 self-identified Catholics surveyed weren't aware of a significant Catholic presence on the Internet.
"Parish bulletins are the most widely used Catholic media," said Mark Gray, director of Catholic polls at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
During a give-and-take dialogue with bloggers, bishops expressed hope and fear about the possibilities of personal engagement in social media.
"I'm afraid of making a fool of myself," said Archbishop Roger Schwietz of Anchorage, Alaska. "This is personality driven. What I'm used to is to focus on the message and stay out of the way."
Bishop John Gaydos of Jefferson City, Mo., compared the digital age to the era that saw the birth of Christianity. "It spread like wildfire. You had the system of Roman roads ... and the spiritual hunger of people who would go after any new mysticism," he said.
Panelist Mary DeTurris Poust, who has spent a 30-year career in Catholic media, said Google searches for "Catholic" and related words are declining while searches for "spiritual" and its variants are rising.
"That should send up a warning flare," said Ms. Poust, who blogs at "Not Strictly Spiritual." "It reflects a virtual version of what we are seeing in [bricks-and-mortar] searches. People are searching, but they are not searching for us. ... How do we reach Catholic adults who are disconnected from the church but are desperately seeking a spiritual connection?"
She was among numerous speakers who told the bishops that their blogs and tweets must be personal and must relate to topics in secular conversation, such as movies or questions that arise in the wake of a tragedy. After Superstorm Sandy, she said, some New York dioceses used Facebook and Twitter to direct people to sources of shelter, food and water.
"That was in true gospel fashion," she said. "In previous generations, that is a conversation that would have happened in the back of a church after a novena. ... Today, Facebook is in many ways the new parish hall."
The second most popular new media site for Catholics after Facebook is YouTube, but they use it for the same reason others do: amusement. "Even pre-Vatican II Catholics are interested in funny cat videos," Mr. Gray said, citing the need for Catholic social media that's entertaining enough to go viral.
Several bloggers mentioned a Chicago priest, the Rev. Robert Barron, as someone with an effective YouTube outreach to nonbelievers. He offers video commentaries on hot topics in popular culture.
Mr. Mattingly said YouTube makes an excellent companion to more traditional outreach efforts. No matter what else the church does, he said, "nothing whatsoever can replace Cardinal [Timothy] Dolan on Comedy Central."
The two most common reasons that Catholics cite for avoiding Catholic sites are concern that they may not represent authentic Catholic teaching and a general tone of incivility.
The notion of getting into angry exchanges discourages bishops from having an online presence.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., said he spends one day each month at a Trappist monastery "to become more serene."
"I don't want to unravel that in a day and a half" by reading angry responses to his blog posts, he said.
Several bloggers specifically mentioned problems with racist posts from professing Catholics. Rocco Palmo, whose "Whispers In the Loggia" blog on church leadership is nearing 25 million site visits, pointed out that 60 percent of Catholics under 30 in the United States are Hispanic, but the Catholic blogosphere doesn't reflect that.
When he writes an annual post in Spanish for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, "I never get more angry, vitriolic hate mail," he said.
He advised bishops to directly address bigotry online.
"We have a major problem when people in our church think they can get away with that and be in communion with the Catholic Church," he said.
Some bloggers cited the angry comments they get from atheists, agnostics and Protestants as proof that non-Catholics are visiting Catholic social media. Some said they had been able to initiate conversations with such readers, who were exploring or returning to the church.
"There has never been a tool, in my belief, that has been more effective at reaching non-Catholics than we have now," said Brandon Vogt, who writes a self-titled blog. "Fulton Sheen would give his right arm for what we have today. The question you should be asking is ... how do you reach those who would never knock on the door of a rectory?"
First Published November 12, 2012 12:00 am