Each year on January 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists and communication, Pope Benedict publishes his routinely compelling annual message for the World Day of Social Communication. For the past two years, he has emphasized the crucial importance for the Church to evangelize by means of cyberspace. In 2009, he called on young people, “the digital generation,” to become heralds within the new communications frontier, infusing the digital continent with Catholic leaven and taking advantage of the extraordinary potential of the new social communications media to foster communion with each other and with God. Last year, he called on priests not merely to give ordinary pastoral care to the Church’s digital missionaries, but to establish a “more focused, efficient and compelling” priestly presence in the new digital world so as to feed the spiritual hunger and preach the Gospel to the burgeoning number of both churched and un-churched individuals who spend increasing portions of their day online.

We will receive on Monday Pope Benedict’s text for this year’s message. Last November, however, those who are not of the digital generation or serving as priests witnessed an example of how to take the Pope’s summons for the evangelization of the new internet agora and apply it to their own situation. In a provocative, practical and perceptive address to his brother bishops at their annual meeting, Bishop Ron Herzog of Alexandria, Louisiana, the chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Communications Committee, entreated his brother bishops to “take social media seriously,” stressing that the failure to do so would be an oversight of historically detrimental proportions.

“I often hear people, both in my work and in my circle of friends, who dismiss social media as frivolous and shallow,” Bishop Herzog began. “Who can blame them? Twittering. Status updates. Blogs. The very words used by the practitioners seem to beg for ridicule. Their light-hearted twisting of the language suggests that these are the latest fad in a culture that picks up and drops fads quicker than the time it takes me to figure out my cell phone bill. ” Yet Bishop Herzog said that the leaders of the Church should not be fooled by appearances: “Social media is proving itself to be a force with which to be reckoned. If not, the church may be facing as great a challenge as that of the Protestant Reformation.”

He admitted that such a claim sounded like an exaggeration, but he gave data about the “staggering” amount of participation in the new media in order to back up his assertion. “The numbers are compelling. There are more than 500 million active users on Facebook; if it were a nation, only India and China would have more citizens. The American Red Cross reported that it raised more than $5 million dollars, $10 at a time, through a text messaging service. One out of eight married couples in the United States say they met through social media. It took 13 years for television to reach 50 million users; after the iPod was introduced, it took only nine months for 1 billion applications to be downloaded. ” He then added an example even closer to home. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) “started a community on Facebook last August. There are now 25,000 ‘fans’ associated with that community. Every day, USCCB staff provides at least four items of information to those 25,000 people: the daily Scripture readings, news releases, links to information on our marriage and vocation websites, and other information. Furthermore, if those 25,000 are like the average profile of a Facebook user, they have 130 friends, or contacts, on Facebook. With one click they can share the information they receive from the USCCB. If only 10 percent of the USCCB fans share what they receive from USCCB, we are reaching 325,000 people. Multiple times a day.  All it costs us is staff time. And these are not just young people. Almost half of Americans classified as the baby boomers – born between 1947 and 1964 – have a Facebook account. Social media may have started with the younger generation, but it is now a very useful tool to reach Catholics of all ages. Although social media has been around for less than 10 years, it doesn’t have the makings of a fad.”

Rather than a fad, he asserted that we’re witnessing “as fundamental a shift in communication patterns and behavior as the printing press did 500 years ago.” The Church, he contended, was rather slow to adapt to that new medium half a millennium ago and should not repeat the same mistake. The consequences of tardiness may be to lose whole generations of the young. “I don’t think I have to remind you of what happened when the Catholic Church was slow to adapt to that new technology,” he stated. “By the time we decided to seriously promote that common folk should read the Bible, the Protestant Reformation was well underway. Because it is so different from mass media and mass communication, social media is creating a new culture on this Digital Continent. Young people use it as their first point of reference. In other words, they’re not even going to their email to get information. The news, entertainment, their friends are all coming to them through their mobile devices and through their social networks. The implications of that for a church that is struggling to get those same young people to enter our churches on Sunday are staggering. If the church is not on their mobile device, it doesn’t exist. The Church does not have to change its teachings to reach young people, but we must deliver it to them in a new way.”

Bishop Herzog stressed that, like all missionaries, leaders of the Church need to learn the language and cultures of those to whom they’re proclaiming the Gospel in order effectively to reach them. This is one of the largest challenges they face. “Most of us don’t understand the culture. One of the greatest challenges of this culture to the Catholic Church is its egalitarianism. Anyone can create a blog; everyone’s opinion is valid. And if a question or contradiction is posted, the digital natives expect a response and something resembling a conversation. We can choose not to enter into that cultural mindset, but we do so at great peril to the Church’s credibility and approachability in the minds of the natives, those who are growing up in this new culture. This is a new form of pastoral ministry. It may not be the platform we were seeking, but it is an opportunity of such magnitude that we should consider carefully the consequences of disregarding it.”

He observed that if the Church is going to preach effectively in “this culture of 140 characters and virtual friendships” — Twitter and Facebook respectively — Church leaders need to respect the culture and engage those in this “brave new world” on their own terms. Church leaders need to “acknowledge that social media is not the latest fad, but a paradigm shift” and that they and their staffs will need training and direction in order to be effective under the new paradigm. It’s not enough to have a presence; there has to be “careful strategizing and planning to make social media an effective and efficient communication tool, not only for your communications department, but for all of the church’s ministries.” He noted that most bishops, in particular, are “digital immigrants” and therefore need “lessons on the digital culture,” saying that those lessons must involve more than “just learning how to create a Facebook account. It’s learning how to think, live and embrace life on the Digital Continent. ”

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