Advancing the new evangelization with social media

By Enedelia J. Obregón

Senior Correspondent

As the global Catholic community welcomes Pope Francis, how do we use social media to continue the new evangelization of our families, parish, friends –– virtual and physical –– and the world? That was the challenge presented to the "Catholic nerds" at an unofficial South by Southwest Interactive workshop by Austin Catholic New Media (www.austincnm.com) on March 12 at St. Mary Cathedral in Austin.

About 40 tech-savvy faithful heard from social media gurus about podcasting, Facebook, Twitter, blogging and other fairly new methods of communication.

Workshop presenters included ACNM founders Jason Elizondo and Chris Williston, parishioners of St. Thomas More Parish in Austin, and Cristobal Almanza of St. William Parish in Round Rock, who is the site’s executive director and designer. They shared their challenges of launching the website and writing about their faith in an increasingly secular world. They organized in October 2010 and had their website up by February 2011.

"This thing was going to be about networking," Elizondo said about contacting other Catholics through social media. "But the Holy Spirit took over."

The organization attracted other writers, including some Catholic moms who were blogging independently. He said that thanks to regular contributions from several talented writers, the pressure of writing daily posts has diminished and has enabled each writer to post every two weeks or so instead.

Father Chris Decker, president and chairman of the board for Catholic Underground (catholicunderground.com) who also serves as co-host of the site’s weekly podcast, said that before taking on any method of social media the faithful first have to discern their role in parish life, their talents and their personal mission. It also is very important to be knowledgeable about church teachings and to be deeply grounded in catechesis, he said.

Only through prayer and discernment can a person determine if God is calling one to a certain mission or if it’s just something one wants to do.

"Just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should," said Father Decker, who is a priest for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, La. "The hunger of my heart has to be in harmony with everything else. When it’s not, that’s what gets us into trouble."

Father Ryan Humphries, managing editor and panelist for Catholic Underground, said that as Catholics, we need to ask ourselves what we can do for the glory of God with the skills as well as the faults that God has given us.

Catholics with social media skills can use their God-given talents to creatively evangelize and reach those people in the pews as well as those who are not at Mass on Sundays.

"I’m sick and tired of what is not working in the church today," said Father Humphries, a priest of the Diocese of Alexandria, La. Instead of the negative, he focused on the thought that there might be new ways that do work.

"Why not use social networking for prayer requests?" he suggested. "Imagine if the Catechism could be turned into three-minute YouTube videos?"

Sometimes people get so excited about an idea that they jump in before praying and discerning.

"You pray," Father Humphries said. "If God says ‘wait,’ you have to be willing to be obedient to God. Don’t stop practicing your art." Sometimes God wants the person or the idea to mature.

Father Decker said there is a myth that the church is always behind the times in embracing new ideas or technology.

"The church always discerns things prayerfully," he said. "The church is always at the forefront, but is not always quick to use it. We always discern how it is to be used. That takes time."

Among those in attendance was Alex Martinez, business administrator at Our Lady of Wisdom Parish at Texas State University in San Marcos. He said the parish uses Twitter and Facebook to reach as many people as possible about events happening.

"We’re just trying to keep up," Martinez said. "It’s easier to reach (college students) this way."

Martinez said their 700 "likes" on Facebook give them a very general idea of how many people have access to what they post.

Martinez was there with fellow parishioner Kayla Urbanovsky, who serves as the parish communications director. She said traffic was increasing on the parish website (txstatecatholic.org) as well as on Twitter (@olwisdomtxstate).

"You can update every time you need to and people can easily share stuff about our parish," she said. "That way they know what’s going on."

That’s a plus for the parish, which is on the edge of campus and where students are in and out throughout the day, she said.

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