MINNEAPOLIS — Maybe you’re reading this online. Maybe the Register’s Facebook “fan page” sent you to the Register’s blogsite and you saw the link.

Or maybe you have no idea what any of that means.

But when Pope John Paul II encouraged Catholics to “put out into the deep for a catch” in Novo Millennio Ineunte, he didn’t say how to do it.

Today, Catholics worldwide are connecting and evangelizing the culture through the new online social media.

Even the Vatican is studying the possibilities of evangelization by new digital media. Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, held a five-day conference in March to discuss how these technologies can be instrumental in creating a new culture.

Many clergy and religious are already using Facebook, Twitter, Plurk and other social media.

Based on his own experiences, Father Roderick Vonhögen, a Dutch priest in the Archdiocese of Utrecht, is convinced of social media’s potential to reach mass audiences completely out of reach of traditional Catholic media. Twelve years ago, he started a daily religious blog that was soon reaching thousands of people all over the world. While podcasting from the Vatican when John Paul II died and Pope Benedict XVI was elected, he found that half of his listeners were not even Catholic. He created SPQN.com, Star Quest Production Network, with the mission of “Leading the Way in Catholic New Media.” Besides podcasts and blogs, he uses Facebook, Twitter and other social networks; he has a following of at least a quarter of a million people from North America, Europe, South America, Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

“I am amazed to see how many people are touched and changed by this apostolate,” he said via e-mail from Amersfoort, where he serves seven parishes. “We receive countless e-mails and other messages from people who came back to the Catholic Church or converted and were baptized as a result of listening to our podcasts. A number of young people even answered their vocation and entered seminary.”

Inge Loots, a graduate student at Open University Netherlands in Groningen, discovered the faith through Vonhögen’s podcast and now follows him on SQPN. Loots, 31, was raised in the “red” part of the Netherlands by a socialist and atheist family and became a Presbyterian 10 years ago. When she got involved with the SPQN community, she was touched by the Catholics there who were trying to live their faith and make a difference.

“The social media tools are evangelizing the culture by showing people the real face of the Church,” she told the Register. “I saw those people on those social networks being more like what Jesus told us than my own church.”

Keeping in Touch

Loots is giving up Facebook for Lent to deepen her relationship with Christ, but will continue to blog and podcast the faith at Taquoriaan.com, where she has introduced many people, including teenagers, to the Liturgy of the Hours and other Catholic practices.

Facebook is the dominant social media force, with 175 million users; it’s growing fastest among the 30-plus age group. The Catholic social network 4Marks has more than 100,000 members who use the online community to bring their Catholic faith into the culture. Twitter is the fastest-growing social network, with more than 2.4 million users who post casual updates known as “tweets.” Plurk is a similar micro-blogging tool that is quickly gaining ground.

Father Dana Christensen, 31, associate vocation director for the Diocese of Sioux Falls, S.D., and pastor of St. Rose of Lima parish, uses Facebook, Twitter and Plurk to keep in touch with parishioners and people around the diocese, including his mother. He sets appointments, answers questions, promotes events, and does vocation outreach through Facebook, which he found is a comfortable way for young people to contact him.

He also gives frequent status updates on Twitter and Plurk so that people can gain insights into the daily life of a priest. “It lets them know that priests’ lives are not boring. There’s more to it than praying and saying Mass,” said Father Christensen. “There are a lot of priests who are doing this.”

After being appointed to serve as apostolic visitator for the apostolic visitation of institutes of women religious in the United States, Mother Clare Millea, the superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, created a Facebook group to pray for its success. Within a short time, men and women across the country joined the group as prayer supporters.

“I am pleased with the positive response to our Facebook page, especially young people,” said Mother Clare, who is based in Rome. “This is a unique way in which the good news of religious life is communicated through a network of friends. Ultimately, important prayers are offered, and communion with Christ and his Church is deepened and re--newed.”

Facebook, which first developed on college campuses, is now the critical link in bringing the faith to a secular culture. Joshua Gideon, a campus director for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students at the University of Missouri in Kansas City and Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., said Facebook is the primary tool for not only communicating with students, but also for finding them through their pictures on Facebook.

“When a student reaches out, we need to be prepared to communicate with them at any possible moment. It’s easier to reach out to the students if you know what they look like,” said Gideon. “The missionary is then able to approach the student in a lunchroom and say, ‘You’re the one who wanted to go to confession.’ I call it a good form of Catholic stalking. We’re able to show them Christ in a much more efficient manner and get to them quickly.”

John Sondag, who publishes The Catholic Servant, a tool of evangelization, catechesis and apologetics based in Minneapolis, is all for the new media — but not at the expense of traditional forms.

“I think we should be where the message can get out to people. But there’s a lot of people not involved in the computer world,” said Sondag. “We’re going to miss a lot of them if we rely on the Internet. Not everybody’s going to sit with a laptop as they eat their breakfast. I think, eventually, some of this will be ho hum and there won’t be the same excitement.”

Gideon believes this is just the tip of the iceberg for evangelizing through the new media, but he also cautions against being overeager. “We have a long way to go to use these tools more effectively and efficiently, but they always must be secondary to reaching out personally,” he said. “We should never let it be at the cost of that one-on-one human interaction which Christ shows us.”

Barb Ernster writes

from Minneapolis.