“Priests should use the Internet to evangelize more.” That’s what Pope Benedict’s World Communications Day message says. “But how?” That’s the question many priests have. The Register asked some experts. This is part five in a series.

Eleven and a half years ago, when I first was appointed director of vocations for my diocese, I remember some advice that a brother priest gave to me regarding a vocations website my predecessor had started just a few months earlier. This priest whom I admire greatly said to me, “Get rid of the website — you don’t need gimmicks to attract future priests.”

Fortunately, even though I respected that priest a lot, I ignored his advice.

I saw the website not as a gimmick but rather as a new way to get the message out there. In fact, I would say these days that by the time any potential candidate has contacted me, he has more than likely been through my website multiple times.

It is hard to believe how far we have changed in just a decade. Of course, everybody today has a website. E-mail, social networking sites, Internet videos and the ability to access them on our phones are now just taken for granted.

Clearly, the way the world communicates and the means in which people get information has changed radically in just a few short years. Those changes continue.

It has been my experience that a great many young people rarely use e-mail anymore instead preferring to communicate through social networking sites like Facebook.

At times in the Church, we are slow to respond to innovations in technology, yet I would suggest that this is more than just technological changes but rather the means of communication. It seems to me we can either bemoan the fact that people don’t read papyrus scrolls anymore or embrace the way the world communicates today and use it effectively or get passed by.

This to me is precisely what the Holy Father was telling the priests of the world in his WCD message. We must use these modern means to proclaim the Gospel. The risk of technological overdependence today is the depersonalization of the human being. That being said, there are however new opportunities to invite people into a deeper realization of our own experience with Christ that perhaps did not exist previously on such a broad scale.

I think this is something that most priests (certainly here in the United States) can easily do.
How then can a priest use these new tools? First of all I would say that the priest needs to realize that this is an extension of his ministry and not a matter of personal preferences when it comes to communication.

As a priest, I know that, like it or not, I am a public person. This is how I approach the electronic world.
In fact I think it is probably a bit easier for priests to understand the public nature of sharing information online than a great many people already in cyberspace.

It never ceases to amaze me what type of information that people easily and willingly share in such a public arena. I often use my Facebook status update to share with others what I am doing. I doubt whether anyone cares what I ate for breakfast, but am always surprised how many people really are interested in what is part of the day-to-day and week-to-week of the life of a priest.

The Internet can be a great place to share homilies, inspirational thoughts, or remind others of important moments in the life of the Church. Sometimes when I come across tremendous images or videos my first inclination is that I want to share them. Yes, I can tell my few closest friends about them, but why limit the exposure?

Instead of just preaching to the choir, it is relatively easy to share it with a much wider audience.

In many ways, I think sharing images, videos and music is very in keeping with our Catholic tradition. For most of our tradition, Catholic churches have been filled with images (statuary, stained glass, paintings, etc). Oftentimes it is these images which draw the individual into a deeper encounter with the Lord in a much more effective way than simply presenting theological doctrines.

Just as sacred art and music can capture the imagination and point one to the Lord, we should not be afraid to do the same with online videos, images and music today.

Now while beautiful cathedrals have been around for hundreds and hundreds of years and continue to inspire people, the challenge in cyberspace is that one must constantly refresh, recreate, and update. On my website I try to balance things that need to be there all the time as well as adding new items of interest.

One of the approaches I have taken is adding a “Feature of the Month,” which changes each month. Sometimes it includes videos, other times a papal speech. It might present a priest and his vocation story or some type of aid to assist discerners.

I try to keep in mind that my audience includes both those first-time discerners as well as those who have been thinking and reflecting on a priestly or religious vocation for a number of years.

There are both opportunities and limitations when it comes to online evangelization. A video may be inspiring, but that can never come close to encountering the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament or through sacramental confession.

We can never substitute something we might use to help draw others to Christ in place of Christ himself.

Online discernment goes only so far. I need to get them on a retreat or at Eucharistic adoration or to visit the seminary. The Lord will take it from there.

While all my vocation retreats, prayer evenings and discernment nights are posted on my website (in an easily findable place), I have found that one cannot rely on simply on the passive availability of information. It still requires invitations. This can be done easily and effectively through something like Facebook.

Not only is it easy to invite others via social networking sites, but in the process one begins to enter a relationship with the person. Depending on what one posts, they can get a better sense of who you are and you can better understand who you are dealing with and what their priorities and struggles might be.

It seems to me that such electronic means, the door to evangelization can be opened quite wide!

Father Len Plazewski, director of vocations of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla., is online at www.spvocation.org.

‘Priests Online’ Series

Part 4: Social Media Evangelization: 18 Ways  Ana Roca Castro
The horizons for new media evangelization are limitless. This should get you started.

Part 3: Are Priests Afraid of Facebook?  Father Jose de Jesus Palacios
Why aren’t more priests active on social networking sites?

Part 2: Getting Online? Get Help!  Father Leo Patalinghug
The key to a vibrant online ministry isn’t technical savvy, but knowing who to count on for help.

Part 1: Broadcasting and Narrowcasting the Gospel  Father Dwight Longenecker
Sometimes “preaching to the choir” is part of our mission too, but the fruits will surprise you.