by Moira Cullings
Kansas City, Kan. — Two thousand years ago, Jesus’ disciples traveled thousands of miles — on foot — to spread his word.
Today, it can be done with a click of a mouse.
Did the apostles ever imagine the good news would one day travel almost instantaneously through cyberspace? Or predict that one day, people would read messages on something called a “cellphone”?
But one thing remains true — Jesus’ disciples have always met people where they are, and today’s priests are no exception.
Social media outreach
Over the past few years, social media has grown up. People of all ages now use an array of social media programs — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram; the list goes on.
To ensure a Catholic presence and a positive voice, archdiocesan priests and seminarians have also stepped into the vast world of the Web.
“I think that it’s an important way of reaching people who might never enter a church,” said Joseph Heschmeyer, a seminarian in his second year of theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis.
“It’s a good way to follow Pope Francis’ call to go out to the peripheries,” he said.
Heschmeyer writes his own blog, which allows him to discuss a variety of religious topics and to address any questions and comments his followers may have.
For Father Mitchel Zimmerman, pastor at Christ the King Parish in Topeka and codirector of seminarians, utilizing social media has been an effective way to connect with young people in the archdiocese.
“I needed to reach young people discerning vocations using the communication mediums that they were using,” he said. “My tweets are a mix of humor, sports and Catholic teaching. I also promote tons of events via social media.”
Father Adam Wilczak, associate pastor at Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe, was also inspired by young people to capitalize on the social media trend.
After putting on a Q&A session with Prince of Peace eighth-graders, “I was talking to one of the parents of the students, and I asked what her child thought [about the session],” said Father Wilczak.
“Her daughter thought we should start a podcast,” he added.
Father Wilczak took action, reaching out to Kyle Kuckelman, the parish’s youth minister, who was immediately onboard.
They now have a weekly podcast, in which they discuss the upcoming Sunday’s readings in a conversational tone.
As for preparation, “we both read the readings and write down some notes of things that stuck out to us as we read,” said Father Wilczak. “Then we talk about them for five to 10 minutes before the show and come up with a game plan of how we want it to flow.
“But then it’s very much a legitimate conversation from there. We just go with the flow.”
Initially unsure about the impact this project might have, “we’ve now got listeners splattered throughout different parts of the country,” he said, “which is a bigger audience than we were ever expecting.”
Capitalizing on creativity
Social media allows priests to get creative with the way they reach out to others.
For Father Nathan Haverland, pastor at Church of the Ascension in Overland Park, mastering the selfie has helped him reach out to parishioners in a unique way.
Father Haverland started his infamous selfie calendar in 2014 and its popularity gave way to another edition in 2015.
“We use [social media] to spread the joy of the priesthood, to be a light in the darkness,” he said. “There’s a lot of darkness out there on social media, a lot of negative stuff. We try to show that there is some good, some positive in the world.”
Father Haverland’s experience has been that people love to see priests on social media, and that bringing joy to people through something like a selfie calendar is part of a greater mission.
“You can reach so many people so quickly, so it seems like a great tool for evangelization,” he said. “It’s just a matter of how to use it. I don’t know if I’ve figured it out completely yet. . . . I’m still learning.”
Father Gerard Alba, associate pastor at Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, is using his artistic talent to enlighten his Instagram followers.
Posting drawings, mostly of people and paired with an inspirational quote, is his way “to be a bridge for people” to the Catholic Church.
“I want the world to know that we’re there as a church. We’re in their midst,” he said.
A self-taught artist, drawing is “something for me to do that’s life-giving. So I make time for it,” he said.
“Whenever I draw or write,” he added, “it is a prayer for me.”
Father Alba’s unique perspective and exceptional talent resonates with both Catholic followers and those who are simply intrigued by his work.
Some priests are even getting in front of the camera to get their messages across.
Father Shawn Tunink, who is currently studying canon law at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., has mastered his own YouTube page.
“When I’m stuck on what to write about, sometimes it’s easier for me just to turn on my camera and say what I want to say,” he said.
Like his fellow priests, Father Tunink uses social media to further his overall mission of evangelization.
“Priesthood is a wonderful life, and I enjoy sharing some of what that life is like through social media,” he said.
A world without borders
When it comes to reaching a large number of people in a short amount of time, nothing quite compares to the Internet.
“The whole notion of something ‘going viral’ is a phenomenon made possible by social media,” said Father Tunink.
Because of this, he said, you have to be careful what you write.
Father Tunink has a particularly diverse following. In the last month, people from 86 different countries visited his site.
But most of the priests in the archdiocese with a social media presence have noticed a following from people outside their own parish or town as well.
“Our original goal was just to reach our parishioners,” said Father Wilczak.
But since he and Kuckelman got the ball rolling, attaining a wider audience, he said, is “a lot simpler than I ever expected.
“Many of the people that listen are non-parishioners, or parishioners that aren’t able to make it to classes we offer.”
“Plus it’s less formal,” he continued. “So you can see some of the thought process that goes into it.
“I think that gives you the opportunity to have a little bit of education, definitely some fun and to reach a greater number of people than some of the normal things we would do.”
The key to keeping the audience entertained is often mixing up the evangelical posts with everyday ones, said Father Nick Blaha, director and chaplain at the Didde Catholic Campus Center of Emporia State University.
“The more of the mix, the more likely I am to get people to click on the articles,” said Father Blaha. “Because there’s already a sense of, ‘This is somebody whose perspective I’m interested in.’ So I really try to mix it up and be unpredictable.”
Taking on the challenge, one post at a time
Although social media is a valuable way to spread messages, it also has its pitfalls.
One of these is time.
“It’s hard to be effective using it without investing more time than should be invested,” said Father Blaha.
“I’ve been on Facebook since 2004. I was on a [Fellowship of Catholic University Students] campus doing outreach, so at that point I got involved because it was a new, up-and-coming way of interacting with students,” he said.
Although it’s helped Father Blaha connect with the young people he works with, it also comes with great responsibility.
“The temptation to be looking at it first thing in the morning or last thing at night, it’s pretty real,” he said.
Another challenge is how quickly societal trends change.
“It’s something I constantly reevaluate,” said Father Haverland. “If at a certain point, it’s no longer effective, or if it’s taking away from my ministry, I would certainly not use it anymore.”
For now, sharing with others online is extremely popular, and portraying a more private side to their lives is something these priests are striving to do in a careful manner.
“What I love about social media is the fact that it kind of forces us to be transparent,” said Father Alba. “At least for me, that’s what it does.”
“Who we are is who we are,” he continued, “and the light of Christ shines better when we [represent] that [on social media].”
Balancing this ministry with regular duties is key for each of these priests, but ultimately the struggles that come with it are a sacrifice they feel obligated to make.
Because so many organizations and religious groups are active on the Internet, said Heschmeyer, it is crucial the Catholic Church is present as well.
“If we’re not actively interacting in the digital marketplace of ideas,” he said, “we’re forfeiting the fight for tomorrow’s church.”
Where to find them:
Father Wilczak’s podcast: theramblingspodcast.blogspot.com
Joseph Heschmeyer’s blog: shamelesspopery.com
Father Tunink’s website: shawnthebaptist.org
Father Alba’s Instagram account: Albascope
Father Haverland’s selfie calendars can be purchased at: http://kcascension.org/mardi-gras-buy-now/