July 16, 2010

Online evangelists: Steering clear of digital dangers, priests use Internet to spread the Gospel

Father Eric Augenstein, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany, sits at his computer in the parish office on July 7. On his blog, “Perpetual Priest,” Father Augenstein posts the text of his weekend homilies, thus widening the reach of his ministry. (Submitted photo)

Father Eric Augenstein, pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany, sits at his computer in the parish office on July 7. On his blog, “Perpetual Priest,” Father Augenstein posts the text of his weekend homilies, thus widening the reach of his ministry. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

“Pope Benedict to priests: For God’s sake, blog!”

The New York Daily News ran this headline in its Jan. 23, 2010, issue above a Reuters article about what Pope Benedict XVI said in his message for the Vatican’s annual World Communications Day.

Other news outlets around the world ran the same story.

In his message, the pontiff made this call to priests around the world:

“Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources [images, videos, animated features, blogs, Web sites] which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis.”

A growing number of priests in the archdiocese are following the pope’s lead, and are effectively bringing people to Christ through the Internet and other emerging communications technologies.

At the same time, they recognize the limits and potential pitfalls of these media. (Click here for links to the blogs of the priests and seminarian described in this story | Related story: Chicago priest is a pioneer of Internet evangelization)

Meeting people where they are

One of the main reasons some of these priests are blogging, using social networking sites such as Facebook, and sending text messages on their cell phones is because it is the best way to keep in contact with youths and young adults.

“The primary audience that I try to reach with Facebook is youths and young adults,” said Father Eric Augenstein, the pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in New Albany. “They will not go to the Web site. Most of them do not check e-mail anymore. And so the only way that I can communicate something about an upcoming parish event to our youths and young adults is through Facebook. That’s the main reason that I joined.”

If that is true for a typical parish priest like Father Augenstein, it is even more so for Father Rick Nagel who, as the archdiocesan director of young adult and college campus ministry, ministers solely to young adults.

But while he is adept at using the emerging technologies to keep in touch with them, he sees what he is doing as having ancient roots.

“In the early Church, the disciples met people where they were at and journeyed with them,” said Father Nagel, who also serves as chaplain at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and provides sacramental assistance at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. “Our young people are using technology so we’ve got to meet them there, and then journey with them to a deeper place of relationship. It’s to get them to Mass and active in the sacraments. It’s getting to know them personally.”

Although Father Nagel will meet youths and young adults in the digital world, he and priests like Father Augenstein don’t want to leave them there.

“We can’t love God and love our neighbors digitally,” Father Augenstein said. “Priests can use their presence in the digital world to invite people to Mass and Church-sponsored events. Even the content of their digital writing—whether homily texts or Facebook posts or blog entries—can emphasize the need for meeting God outside the computer.”

Father Nagel is very deliberate about using digital media as only a starting place for strengthening the faith of young adults.

“It’s an entry-level place for relationships for everybody,” he said. “But it must go beyond the virtual world.

“If I get a text message, I try to take that to, ‘Why don’t you come in and see me?’ or ‘We’ll meet at a restaurant’ or ‘We’ll take a walk.’ Then it develops. It’s amazing what comes out of that.”

Digital pitfalls

At the same time, Father Nagel recognizes some of the dangers of ministering online.

Users of Facebook connect to one another by becoming “friends” on the site. Father Nagel has more than 900 such friends, but is discerning when someone new asks to become his friend.

“I look to see if I know them or if they’re associated with someone that I know,” he said. “You’ve got to be a little cautious about things that are out there.”

He also said that staff members in the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education are in the process of drafting guidelines for those who minister to and with youths and young adults about how to use social networking sites appropriately, and how to pass on such principles to young people.

There is also the simple danger of dedicating time to ministering in the virtual world that could be used for ministering in the real world—face to face.

Father Nagel hasn’t used the popular micro-blogging site Twitter simply because he has found that the young adults he ministers to don’t use the site.

“The big thing that people use it for is [to tell people] where you’re at or what you’re doing right now,” he said. “And I don’t see that as a huge evangelical tool. And a lot of them aren’t using it anyway. They’re a lot more active on Facebook and text messaging. They’ll get on to see the blog.”

At the same time, Father Augenstein says posting the text of his weekend homilies on his blog, “Perpetual Priest,” takes about two minutes.

But that small amount of time broadens his ministry.

“I’ll talk to people regularly who might have been out of town on a weekend, who will go on [my blog] after Sunday and read the homily that they missed while they were out of town,” Father Augenstein said. “I also know a number of people in other parishes that I’ve served in who will go on [my blog] regularly. And I even know of one men’s prayer group that gets on there every week, and reads my homily and talks about it at their [meeting].”

At 24, seminarian Michael Keucher, a member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington, has grown up with the Internet being a constant presence in the prevailing culture, and sees ways of using blogs in a time-efficient manner.

“I think people just need to remember that it doesn’t have to be a very formal thing,” said Keucher, who has a blog titled “The Long Journey into Light.” “You could post little snippets. Sometimes my posts are two sentences long. It’s just something to give people and myself something to reflect upon that’s timely. It’s a good way to do that.”

Internet evangelization

While priests and future priests who blog, use Facebook and text message seek to steer clear of the dangers on the Internet, they still recognize it as an effective means for evangelization.

“There’s a great deal of power in the Internet,” Keucher said. “And I think that, oftentimes, that power is used for evil. There’s certainly a bunch of trash out there.

“So it’s very important that it is used for good, too. It’s such an incredible tool that we have. It would be a shame to not utilize that tool. So the more priests and sisters and, really, anybody that has a blog about the faith, the better.”

Father John Hollowell started blogging in earnest after hearing about the pope’s call to priests to use the Internet earlier this year.

On his blog, which is titled “On This Rock,” he posts videos of homilies that he delivers on weekends at St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg, where he is a sacramental minister.

“I see it as another means to evangelize,” said Father Hollowell, who is also chaplain of Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis. “I consider myself, too, to be very much an apologist on behalf of the Church, to explain it to people who maybe have been in it, but don’t really know what to think about it, or have never really been told about what the Church really is and what the Church says about itself.”

Father Augenstein agrees, seeing his use of the Internet as a way to draw people to Christ.

“My main hope is that it would lead people to the Mass and to Church and to experience Christ personally, and not just through the Internet,” Father Augenstein said. “It’s not an end in itself. It is a means to connect people to the Church.” †

Want to see how some priests and a seminarian are evangelizing online?

You can also search for these priests and Keucher at www.facebook.com. †


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