By Juan Guajardo
In a setting that feels like a retreat merged with a techno expo, a priest stands in front of a projected photo of the DeLorean from the Back to the Future movies, talking about changes in the online world with an audience of podcasters, bloggers, web designers, laptop-savvy priests, smartphone-toting laypeople, and even an iPad-wielding nun. Some attendees Tweet while others take notes on various digital devices. In one corner of the room, a sponsor promotes E-Bibles. Next door, there is adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
It’s typical of the fifth annual Catholic New Media Conference held this year at the Arlington Convention Center Aug. 29-31. What’s more, that scene may be a glimpse of how the future of evangelization for the Church will look: Bishops, priests, religious, lay people, young and old, using new media like podcasts, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, to “give a soul” to the Internet as Pope Benedict XVI said in 2010.
Hosted by Star Quest Production Network (sqpn.com), a non-profit apostolate dedicated to evangelization through new media, the conference attracted more than 200 people from 23 states and from as far away as Europe and the Philippines and featured talks by prominent Catholic bloggers, podcasters and even a blogging bishop — Bishop Christopher Coyne, apostolic administrator of the Indianapolis Archdiocese, on everything from how to start a blog and create apps and web videos, to how to grow an online audience and share the Good News effectively.
“Like any sort of evangelization, you have to go to where the people are,” said Steve Nelson, executive director of SQPN and coordinator of the conference. “Hundreds of years ago you went to other countries, you went to other cities, you traveled. But now, to find the people you go online because they’re there. They’re on Facebook, they’re in chat rooms, and that’s where evangelization is. One of the places where evangelization takes place is in that online world. So I don’t see it stopping anytime soon. It’s only getting bigger and bigger.”
To meet that reality, the Catholic New Media Conference provides networking opportunities, training, and advice to anyone aspiring to join the evangelization movement emerging in the new media sphere.
On the conference’s second day, Dutch priest Father Roderick Vonhögen, a pioneer in the world of Catholic podcasting, co-founder of SQPN, and host of The Break and Catholic Insider, talked about some of the efforts Catholics have made using new media in the last seven years. He said efforts have been intensive and successful with media like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and podcasts — all platforms that have given the Church and Catholics a voice and a fun, positive, and personal online presence.
But Fr. Vonhögen said progress must continue in those areas and with other aspects of new media like mobile apps and mobile-compatible websites, gaming, E-books, and memes. By utilizing those tools well, Catholics can engage others and create “places of truth” where they can counteract the misinformation that abounds online and the rise of popular atheism.
“How can we help? I think that’s one of the most essential questions we need to ask ourselves as Catholics,” Fr. Vonhögen said. “It’s not how can we make sure that our message gets heard. I think the best example on how to reach out is what Jesus did himself by washing the feet of his disciples. It’s his commandment — do this to one another, like I did for you. And our attitude in social media and new media should be an attitude of service. People can reject ideas, they can disagree. They can hate us for our ethics or moral points of view, but who will refuse a helping hand?”
The conference also featured Jennifer Fulwiler, a prominent blogger for National Catholic Register and author of conversiondiary.com. Fulwiler recounted how her journey from militant atheist to Catholic was helped primarily by her discussions with Catholic and Christian bloggers and their dialogue with atheist bloggers, like the Raving Atheist.
“I became Catholic, my husband became Catholic… and the Raving Atheist became Catholic,” Fulwiler said. “So don’t tell me that bloggers can’t change the world because I have seen it. We absolutely can.”
She said the world is desperate for truth and that even secular society seems more ready to embrace the truth provided by Christ. But she encouraged the audience to present that truth in an inviting way by striving for excellence with every post.
“The world needs us to get the fullness of truth out there, and we Catholics don’t have the luxury of not putting our best foot forward, of not doing everything we can do to have the best blogs that we can have in terms of design and also in terms of writing,” Fulwiler added. “It only takes a few of us blogging for the glory of God to change the world.”
Sister Anne Flanagan, of the Congregation of the Daughters of St. Paul, and an attendee at the conference, has aimed to do just that since she started her Nun Blog (romans8v29.blogspot.com) in 2004. She is on Twitter and Facebook, creates daily religious haikus and meditations on the day’s readings for her online audience, and has a blog dedicated solely to the Angelus prayer.
Sr. Anne, holding her iPad — a gift from her mother — explained that blogs and other new media are a form of providing a real presence and making oneself available 24/7.
“You never know who you can reach,” she added, before going off to her mid-day prayers.