Tweeting Among the Birds of Air

James Martin

How bouncy or sticky are Catholic websites? How well is the church using social and digital media in its mission to spread the Gospel?

First, the good news. These days almost every Catholic organization and diocese and most parishes have a firm web presence. One can check out editorials in the diocesan newspaper, follow the pastor’s blog (and read his latest homily), make donations to a favorite Catholic charity, and check on Mass times. An up-to-date website is as much a necessity today as a weekly parish bulletin is (or used to be).

More good news: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has found great success in the world of social media. It has over 31,000 fans on Facebook, where the conference sometimes sponsors trivia contests and where fans use the page for lively discussions. The conference also maintains its own YouTube channel and frequently updates its Twitter feed. Sample tweet: “Are you ready to spend some behind-the-scenes time w/Pope Benedict XVI at the Apostolic Palace? The grand tour.” (Note 4 tweeters: 2 save space drop XVI.)

Sticking to It

The bad news is that more than a few Catholic sites are unimaginative, difficult to navigate, full of dead links and look like they have not been redesigned since the Clinton administration. In the print world, magazine editors are encouraged to redesign every five years. On the web, reinvention happens far more frequently. If the medium is the message, then the message is that the church is often a laggard. A good website requires more than just repositories for information. As philosophers might say, these are a “necessary but not sufficient” condition for stickiness.

Most good websites are updated daily. If they want young eyeballs, then this is done several times a day – not just text but videos, podcasts, slide- shows, and interactive conversations. If not, he or she should not be surprised by a lack of visitors. 

Those who wonder whether it is really possible to update sites daily would do well to remember that there is plenty going on in our church, so it is not hard to be creative: point viewers to international church news; upload videos of Catholic speakers; link to articles from your favorite Catholic magazines; point to new (or old) Catholic art; post the latest Vatican press release.

Many church employees might say: “Are you nuts? I’m too busy!” But not updating is like having a microphone in the parish that is not working. If church organizations do not maintain a fresh web- site or blog, fewer people – especially the young, who get their information digitally – are going to visit these sites and hear the church’s message, or even care if the church is speaking.

Back to the good news: The official church has hit its stride in the blogosphere. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York and others blog religiously (pun intended). But blogs present significant challenges, like encouraging dialogue among readers and building a sort of virtual community. Take a look at a few diocesan blogs and note how many comments there are: often the number is zero.

Why zero? Too often it is because the blogger posts and then walks away. To repurpose Truman Capote’s comment about Jack Kerouac, that’s not blogging, that’s typing. Responding to commenters encourages more people to read, post, and discuss. This practice is not without its own dangers; it is easy to get bogged down in arcane theological e- battles.

In All Things Charity

Accepting and publishing comments, even those not in line with church teaching, is another challenge that demands, besides patient catechesis, constant charity. Still more charity is required when the comments become ad hominem. “In omnibus caritas,” as Blessed John XXIII liked to say. Easy to say, but harder to do when someone says you are an idiot, a heretic (or both) or that one should be, as someone recently said of yours truly, laicized.

Sometimes the attacks ping around the web and find their way to the Catholic school where the targets of the attacks work, the university where they teach, or the diocese in which they minister. So a caveat: don’t believe everything you read in the blogosphere.

Back to how the church can better use digital media to spread the Gospel. Does the church seriously want to reach young people? I mean people who are really young – not just under fifty, but under twenty-five – young men and women in college or high school. The church longs to reach the young, but is it willing to speak not only in the language of young people, but in the modes they use?

Jesus, after all, asked his followers to go to the ends of the earth, not just to places where they felt comfortable. And Jesus did not sit around in Capernaum waiting for people to come to him. And he spoke in a language that people understood and used media that people found accessible.

Using parables, he was not afraid of being seen as undignified by talking about commonplaces like mustard seeds or sheep. The Son of God did not see that as beneath him. And if he did not consider speaking in familiar styles as undignified, then why should we?

In every age the church has used whatever media were available to spread the good news. St. Augustine practically invented the form of the autobiography; the builders of the great medieval cathedrals used stone and stained glass; the Renaissance popes used not only papal bulls but colorful frescoes; Hildegard of Bingen, some say, wrote one of the first operas; the early Jesuits used theater and stagecraft to put on morality plays for entire towns; Dorothy Day founded a newspaper; Daniel Lord, S.J., jumped into radio; Bishop Fulton Sheen used television to stunning effect; and now we have bishops and priests, sisters and brothers and Catholic lay leaders who blog and tweet.

How sad it would be if we did not use the latest tools available to us to communicate the word of God. If Jesus could talk about the birds of the air, then we can surely tweet.

James Martin, S.J., is culture editor of America magazine and author of the new book Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life (HarperOne). This essay is adapted from an address given at the 2010 World Communications Day, sponsored by the Diocese of Brooklyn.