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Spreading the Good News in a Digital World

Through the years, friars and their partners-in-ministry have been utilizing digital media of all kinds to strengthen their voices, maintain a dialogue with those seeking to discern a vocation and spread the good news.

In 2013, the Province introduced the “Text a Prayer” initiative to enable people to send messages to HNP friars using their cell phones. This electronic prayer campaign was one of the several ways the Province began communicating with their communities using modern methods to inform people about their lives and ministries.

Another campaign called “Gather 4 Good, Give 5 for Food,” in support of the Friars Challenge — an appeal by the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province – was launched in 2015 as a social media fundraiser with all dollars raised going to benefit food service programs including soup kitchens, breadlines, and food pantries throughout the country.

Just a month ago, FriarWorks — which shares the stories of people who receive life-changing services from Holy Name Province ministries and is overseen by HNP’s Office of Development — completed a digital media push raising over $10,000 in order to purchase new Chromebook laptop computers for inner-city students at Christ the King Preparatory School in Newark, N.J.

With a growing number of people primarily discovering and interacting with the Province online, it is important for friars to stay present in the digital sphere. The challenge has been how to establish a presence that recognizes and responds to the distinctive needs of this digital culture. Friars have had to understand the social behavior, platforms, and vehicles of the communities they seek to evangelize.

Recently, several friars — Casey Cole, OFM, and HNP’s vocation director Basil Valente, OFM — along with David Dault, producer of the Francis Effect podcast, and Diogenes Ruiz, communications coordinator at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, N.C., discussed the influence of digital media and how it has changed over the last few years in spreading and preaching the Gospel.

Vibrant Friars Doing Vital Ministry
“Most of our vocations begin with online engagement,” said Basil. “After that the process usually continues with the men considering Franciscan life becoming involved with one of our parishes or ministries.”

Videos by and about Casey Cole have been posted on the Province’s vocation website and shared through social media. (Photo courtesy of Vocation Office)

In fact, according to the 2017 Holy Name Province Vocation Report distributed at this year’s Chapter, 41% of the men surveyed in the 2016-17 vocation admissions cycle learned about Holy Name Province through online searches and social media.

Facebook is the primary social medium for our discerners,” said Basil. “There has been a steady increase in page likes and engagement since October 2014, with the biggest spikes coming in May 2015 — an increase of more than 100 likes in two weeks, correlating to a joint pilgrimage to Italy made by the Vocation and Development offices — and April 2016, when our ad for National Vocation Day was seen by over 16,000 online viewers and “liked,” “shared,” and/or “commented upon” by over 1,100.”

“Growth has continued steadily in 2017,” he added. “Our highest engagement in 2017 came with our photo series for World Day of Prayer for Vocations in May, culminating with a video from Casey Cole and a post which was seen by over 18,000 and engaged by over 1,700; with 741 “likes,” “shares,” and/or “comments.”

Casey is a friar who understands that to stay present in the digital sphere is not only about how one uses new technologies to evangelize but it requires keeping up with features that new platforms offer. He started his Breaking in the Habit blog in 2011 to “promote faith, energize communities and encourage vocations to consecrated life,” according to the website.

“My online ministry of catechesis has evolved quite a bit over the past six years,” said Casey, who professed his final vows in August. “I started out by blogging, sharing my experience as I was going through the formation process with the friars. A few years later, I began looking for other media to use. Blogging was great, but I realized that I could not be beholden to one form of media. As new forms became popular, I needed to be flexible enough to adapt.”

He now uses Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to share photos, videos and reflections — as he put it — “looking at Franciscan life from a wider lens.” Franciscan Media published a series of Lenten reflections by Casey earlier this year. They appeared each Friday on the Franciscan Media website and Facebook page. Last summer, Catholic TV, a Massachusetts-based Catholic Cable channel, aired videos that he produced.

The Language of the Social Networks
“With each social media platform, there is a culture and an audience,” said Diogenes Ruiz who assists William McConville, OFM, with his audio reflections, which are available on SoundCloud and e-newsletter. “In December, we will celebrate four years of sending out ‘Fr. Bill’s Daily devotional’. To date, we have more than 1600 people subscribed to receive it.”

Bill McConville has been recording his daily audio reflections since 2013. (Photo of his e-newsletter)

“Bill started recording his daily devotionals when he was an associate pastor at St. Francis of Assisi in Raleigh. He then relocated to Immaculate Conception in Durham, and now he is at the University of Georgia,” said Ruiz. “Digital media has made it possible for him to continue this great series in spite of his moves. Bill is a terrific homilist and digital media serves as an extension of his evangelical reach.

“The use of new media for evangelization has taken a big step in the last couple of years. That’s the good news,” added Ruiz. “The bad news is that hate and political divisive banter has outpaced evangelization in just about every social media platform.”

This is a challenge that Daniel Horan, OFM, of Chicago, and David Dault, a former professor of religious studies and co-owner of Sandburg Media, decided to tackle. Last month, they launched a podcast called “The Francis Effect” offering commentary on politics and contemporary events from a Catholic perspective.

“Dan and I are colleagues at Catholic Theological Union, and I pitched the idea [for the podcast] to him one-day last summer when we were having lunch,” said Dault. “Speaking personally, it has given me some opportunities to evangelize. As we’ve been promoting the show on social media, we’ve attracted some comments from folks who are very hostile to Catholicism. I prayed about what my response should be, and I decided to engage the skeptics, so long as I could keep the interactions civil and positive.”

“For the most part, the engagements have managed to land in that quadrant,” added Dault. “I have been pleased to see that my patience has — in many cases — turned a tone of attack into one that actually feels like a conversation. I know that Dan has had to deal with a lot more of this sort of invective than I have, and he has been excellent counsel to me as I have taken on this experiment in “the New Evangelization.”

In the last podcast’s episode, the hosts of The Francis Effect look at current rumblings of nuclear conflict and Pope Francis’s recent comments on the death penalty. (Photo courtesy of the podcast’s Facebook page)

How Friars Can Get Started
“Friars’ online initiatives — especially with the vocation Facebook page — are essential,” said Basil who founded the integrated marketing communications graduate degree program at St. Bonaventure University and remains a tenured assistant professor in that department. “This engagement remains a direct corollary to active discernment.”

“Engage as much as possible,” says Casey. “People notice when we respond, and I’ve had wonderful encounters with people who have changed their minds about things, have experienced healing, or learned something they otherwise wouldn’t have, just because I responded to their comment.”

“Remember that anyone can see what you post. What we say and write should be thoughtful, worthy of standing up to any situation,” he added. “How we treat those who disagree with us, or how we accept praise can be an opportunity for evangelization.”

Ruiz recommends keeping social media methods simple so that production is not overwhelming and time-consuming. “This should be fun,” he said. “Digital media is an increasingly important and effective method of evangelizing. Don’t be intimidated by the technology; it’s merely a tool.”

“Recruit a technology partner/parishioner volunteer to take care of the technical stuff so you can focus on the content,” Ruiz added. “Remember why you are doing this. It is imperative that we use all the tools at our disposal to reach the lost sheep. Pope Francis is all about using digital media and you can be sure that he has folks doing the techie stuff.”

Dault and Dan shared the same sentiment.“Dan and I work a lot by email, sending ideas back and forth about potential show topics, and the angles we might want to take in the conversation,” Dault said. “From that, I work up a bare-bones script, as well as a set of talking points. Ultimately, I hope that the show becomes a gathering point for Catholics who feel revitalized by the work of Pope Francis, and who have been hungry for examples of how those who take Church teachings seriously might speak to current events.”

For many years, the Provincial Office has used social media to disseminate information. HNP’s communications team began using Twitter in 2009, and the following year, Facebook and YouTube. Today, the number of followers, all social platforms combined, is more than 7,000.

“Disseminating news and images through social media is so important these days,” said Jocelyn Thomas, HNP communications director. “It’s not only where people get most of their news but it is a method that enables Franciscans to communicate their personality, meaning their interest in people. We’ve found that photos that display the friars’ joy about their life and their work are very popular with people.”

– Johann Cuervo is a communications assistant in the Provincial Office.

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