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Getting Online? Get Help! (4845)

‘Priests Online’ — A Register Experts Forum, Part 2

02/18/2010 Comment

Father Leo Patalinghug tapes a segment of his online program 'Grace Before Meals.' Cameraman is Greg Willits from the Sirius Radio Show, 'The Catholics Next Door.'

“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 two in a series.

My involvement in promoting www.gracebeforemeals.com on the Internet may lead people to think that I’m one of those technically inclined young whipper-snapper-styled computer priests. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

While I have a website that averages about 1.5 million to 2 million hits a month, a weekly blog with almost 10,000 subscribers, and I host an award-winning Internet show that could become a TV show, the credit for this success does not go to me.

I’m not trying to be humble, but very honest. I have NO idea how to do any of these technical things on the computer! I simply offer my service and my priestly presence and the tech experts take care of the rest. In my case, the tech people are a group of young, innovative and talented crew who are able to take my message and make it viable.

Some of the tech staff are not even Catholic. Yet their skill and experience in this field have proven invaluable. Without their help, I’d be lost in cyberspace and be tangled up in a deadly World Wide Web.

Talk about the true spirit of collaboration! The tech crew allows me to simply be a priest, while I invite them to share the mission of spreading the Gospel in a way they know best.

The whole “‘Grace Before Meals’ movement” started in the parish when I met Tim Watkins, who owns Renegade Productions. His company provides the technical support that produces the website content. Without his expertise the “good ideas” would never incarnate. Again, all of the Internet success goes to the Internet experts.

Yes, God provides! There are plenty of people in your parish, congregation and communities who can help “translate” the priest’s message and even his presence into the cyber-fast high resolution that makes Jesus’ teaching virtually come to life. A priest simply has to ask for help, and God will point him in the direction of (1) whether or not he should personally be involved in this field of ministry, and or (2) the right tech crew who can help him create an “extension” of his ministry to parishioners and beyond.

In accord with the Holy Father’s recent letter regarding use of Internet for priestly ministry, it’s important for priests just to begin the discussion with his parish council and representatives of different groups in the parish.

The Internet has given me a renewed view of the Catholic Church’s universal unity. People from around the world have received and celebrated our message. The ability to touch hearts and minds through a computer has been a bit of a revelation for me.

While nothing can nor should take the place of the personal presence of a priest — ordained to act in persona Christi — I see how the computer simply provides another platform for the ministers to open the eyes and ears of God’s people.

Our Catholic people, especially young people, spend a lot of time in front of the computer and they can learn much about their faith that way, if we are willing to meet them there. The computer gives parishioners a “protection,” namely anonymity, to search and seek without being as vulnerable to personal rejection.

No doubt that a good website can be an even more effective evangelization tool than a perfectly crafted homily. The challenge with this mode of learning is that there seems to be endless Internet searches, but much of it is junk for the soul.

As the professor of Homiletics, Pastoral Theology and Spirituality at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., I see now more than ever the need to engage future priests in a new missionary field — cyberspace. The Formation Team has quite a job in helping seminarians discern the proper role of the computer world. We recognize the blessings and curses that come from this type of ministry.

We warn them that “virtual reality” cannot replace “personal reality” and we remind them that “instant communication” requires patience, kindness and pastoral compassion, which never come instantly.

We impose technology “fasts,” lest the constant use of computers creates an unhealthy addiction. We tell them to meet people where they are in life, knowing that many are in computer chat rooms and on Facebook pages, but to use the same prudence that would make a priest avoid causing scandal by going to a bar, nightclub or inappropriate forms of entertainment.

At the same time, we help them envision how a taped personal appearance of a priest giving a tour of his parish, and introducing the staff in a five-minute video put on the parish website can renew the efforts of the hospitality committee.

Posting a pastor’s daily message in a bite-sized format, that is just a one- or two-line sentence about the Gospel, can give parishioners a glimpse into the soul of the priest’s prayer life.

Creating a Facebook page for parishioners to join can be a faster and more direct way to generate funds, interest in a parish event, or provide a space for people’s prayer requests.

The blessings of the Internet are obvious, while the dangers are subtle. The dangers incite fear and caution to get involved, which is one reason why the Catholic effort in the New Evangelization has not been fully realized.

This “fear” to follow Christ is truly captured in St. Peter’s question, “Domine Quo Vadis” (“Lord, where are you going”)?
Jesus goes where his people may be found, even if in a computer chat room. Jesus is willing to “learn” a new language, such as computer language. Jesus has always been involved in mass communication techniques, and presented the faith in image oriented allegories, a dynamic technique of love that is “ever ancient and ever new!”

The Holy Father reminds us that the Internet can be a great gift if placed in God’s hands. We all know what happened when the simple offerings of bread and fish were placed in Jesus’ hands. If we don’t actively take technology and put it in God’s hands, then the devil will steal it and use it to spread the lies and sickness that poison us from within. The missionary field of cyberspace can instantly become a battlefield. Not all are called to this mission.

Thank God I’ve had the help of people who know their way around this new arena. It’s better to use the laity’s expertise in this manner because it doesn’t create competition but true collaboration.

In the meantime, I continue to pray: Please God, raise up priests, form them and teach them how, and give them missionary zeal to venture to the farthest corners of cyberspace and share the Good News with lost or seeking souls. All of that can be done by a priest without ever leaving the computer desk in his office!

Father Leo Patalinghug is online at www.gracebeforemeals.com.

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