“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 six in a series.

It’s a buzz question these days: “What are we doing to use the Internet for evangelization?”

In his World Communications Day message, the Holy Father encourages us to keep asking it, as he calls us to be “leaders of communities” and “faithful witnesses to the Gospel” online.

But how? Blogs, viral videos, embedded links, feeds … it’s a whole new language and skill set that is, quite frankly, still overwhelming to so many of us.

In the face of the complexity of many online projects, we tend to allow their very prospect to intimidate us into leaving them for the savvy.

But we also overlook a simple fact: The Holy Father isn’t really asking every one of us to be on the cutting edge of Internet innovation. His most important request is quite simple: establish a greater presence in the online community.

When we recognize the Internet as a community, we acknowledge it as a forum for the exchange of ideas and the formation of opinions.

In much of America and Europe, the Internet is the primary source for most people’s news and a tremendous influence on their opinions and worldviews. It’s a simple fact: If the Church’s presence is limited there, so is people’s access to the voice of truth.

One small example: I recently read an article on health care that was posted on a major news site. In a short paragraph, the writer stated his understanding of the Catholic Church’s position.
I wasn’t surprised to see, among the follow-up responses from readers, a couple of voices exclaiming frustration with the Church for holding that position. In the ensuing replies, there was a lot of, “You know, you’re right” and “Wow, now that you mention it…” followed by further arguments from some of the original commentators.

Through a series of consecutive dialogues, an agreement slowly developed: The Church can’t relate to today’s real problems.

Now, this is nothing novel. But what surprised me most was that, beyond a couple of well-meaning but impatient defensive statements, there was a broad absence of any substantial voice on the Church’s behalf.

In the end, the opinions formed in that single forum were left utterly deprived of the whole picture.

Certainly, it’s a simple example. And sure, some people just need to sound off and vent frustrations. We can dismiss their antics all day long, but the fact is that people listened. And the people listening are not the people who are coming to Mass — it’s a different audience, and one to which the Church often has no other access.

If they don’t hear from us in those forums, they’re not going to hear from us at all.

So what do we do? Yes, we need the websites, the blogs, the Facebook accounts, the videos and so on.
But we also need a simpler form of presence, one of which we are all capable. We simply need to be in the midst of these conversations as witnesses.

If ideas are forming, we need to be there to ensure that they are well-formed.

Check the blogs, scroll down to the end of articles, post on message boards. Follow links from articles and post replies.

(Make it official - write 30 minutes in on your calendar. Or use it as a tool for priestly fraternity: gather for prayer and then spend time with your laptops at a wireless access point.)

The evangelical model is Christ’s, really: Teach, answer questions, address frustrations, gently correct, always reach out. We just need to be there out there! And we need to be there now.

People deserve well-founded, accessible, meaningful answers to their questions. They deserve the truth. And if we, the Church, are not out there making sure they’re getting it, then who is?

Deacon John Burns, of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, studies at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. He will be ordained to the priesthood on July 17.

‘Priests Online’ Series

Part 5: ‘Get Rid of the Website’: Advice to Ignore  Father Len Plazewski
Keep the website, but get on Facebook too: vocation recruiting in 2010.

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.