CLEVELAND — The age of social media has opened up new frontiers for spreading the Gospel, and faithful Catholics on the Internet have discovered the power of "memes" to educate others about Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.
In the online world, a "meme" is a concept (usually an image with words or phrases to convey a message) that gets passed from person to person via blogs and social-media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
"I think memes are some of the most effective agents of evangelization out there," said Sister Anne Flanagan, social-media expert for the Daughters of St. Paul. "The idea meme is visual, punching, has that cultural ‘pop’ in it and is sharable. People can link to it on Facebook and Twitter, and it can reach thousands of people."
"Memes are primarily visual. The words are there to tweak the visual," she explained.
One common meme is the "Boromir meme," showing an image of Boromir from The Lord of the Rings films, with a variation of his comment to the Council of Elrond, "One does not simply walk into Mordor." In a Catholic meme, for example, a Boromir image will be featured with text saying, "One does not simply … be Catholic and pro-abortion" or "One does not simply … become one’s own person by abandoning the faith."
Ryan Scheel, founder of CatholicMemes.com, told the Register that he decided to create Catholic memes and spread them on social media after encountering the "nasty side of Internet culture."
"I had people coming to my site [uCatholic.com] and trying to disrupt it, usually with memes," he said. "So I took what others were doing and turned it around."
Scheel, 32, a Cleveland-based marketing director, said he wanted to make social media and the Internet a place where a person could be "unabashedly Catholic" but still "relevant to modern Internet culture."
Catholic Memes has more than 87,000 followers on Facebook. Scheel said the humor in Catholic memes helps remind Catholics that, despite the scandals in the Church, they can be joyful and lighthearted about their faith. He said that memes also promote apologetics and create discussion in the comment boxes between faithful Catholics and non-Catholics because humor is "the easiest way to disarm people."
‘Forum for Dialogue’
"It really does provide a forum for dialogue," Scheel said. "A lot of atheists — after talking with Catholics — often leave the page with a softened view. I’ve had more than a hundred messages from atheists about how the page has changed their perceptions about what the Church thinks."
Jakov Horvat, a 25-year-old computer engineer living in Croatia, told the Register that he took inspiration from Scheel’s Catholic Memes to start his own Catholic-meme community on Facebook called CatholicGag.
Horvat (a pseudonym, as he requested not to be identified by his real name) said CatholicGag mixes memes with pictures, comics and quotations from Catholic icons like G.K. Chesterton, Benedict XVI, Paul VI and other Catholic intellectuals to educate others about the faith.
"Memes are a simple way to expose stereotypes and misconceptions that people have about the Church," Horvat said. "In that way, they can be used to evangelize and move people toward the Church, the Bible and really encounter the Gospel."
Benedict XVI’s writings on social media, Horvat said, inspired him to think of ways to evangelize online when he re-converted to the faith in 2007. The Croatia-based CatholicGag has 10,000 followers on Facebook and more than 500 on Twitter.
"I’ve received a lot of positive feedback," Horvat said. "I really enjoy seeing so many priests and seminarians now using these memes to spread the Gospel."
CatholicGag promotes a meme that helps Catholics know what Vatican II actually taught, as opposed to the "spirit of Vatican II." With the hashtag #ThingsVatican2ActuallySaid, this meme has an image of the bishops in the Second Vatican Council and a quote from the actual Council documents.
CatholicGag has also generated a "Forgot how to priest" meme that draws attention to liturgical abuse, but in a humorous way.
"We’ve done some of these memes to point out abuses in the Church," Horvat said. "But we do it with humor and with love."
Both Scheel and Horvat supply about half of the memes on their websites, with the remainder being generated by outside contributors.
Memes are "gentle persuaders," Sister Anne said, but she also pointed out that a meme is like an "in-house joke": It requires that the one who posts the meme and the one who receives it share a common culture. For that reason, memes have their own audience: Some will speak to Catholics; some will speak more broadly to Christians generally; some memes will just speak to people with a cultural familiarity of Christianity (like Noah’s Ark or Jesus delivering the Sermon on the Mount).
"You have to have a common cultural touchstone. Otherwise, you’re speaking a foreign language," explained Sister Anne.
One popular Catholic meme has the tagline #ThingsJesusNeverSaid. Scheel founded the Things Jesus Never Said community, which has more than 18,000 followers on Facebook. These memes often feature a popular image of Jesus with words that contradict what Jesus actually taught, such as, "I am a Way, a Truth and a Life" or "People will totally love you for being my follower." The words are followed up with the hashtag #ThingsJesusNeverSaid.
Scheel said he likes to create memes with popular culture references, but then add a Church or biblical reference, such as a Scripture verse, that inspires people to do some research or open their Bibles in order to get the humor.
"People don’t want to feel like they want to get out of the joke. It’s a way of getting people to know their faith better," he said. "And then they have a great sense of accomplishment."
Both Catholics and non-Catholic Christians have found the memes helpful. Andrew Cotter, 28, an evangelical pastor in New York, told the Register that he likes Catholic memes to help remind others that Christians need to be more humble and loving.
"I feel that a photo and a quip is a good way to inject humor and truth in a non-threatening way," Rev. Cotter said. "That gets people thinking."
Beth Collins, a 26-year-old Catholic homemaker in Virginia, said sharing a Catholic meme she likes on Facebook "boils down to the joy I find in my Catholic faith."
"A simple picture with a catchy phrase or quote, whether funny or serious, is a way that I can say to a family member or friend, ‘Hey, isn’t this great, interesting, thought-provoking?’ both without shoving it down their throat and still drawing their (and their 300 friends’) attention to it," Collins said. "It’s a mini evangelization!"
"Catholic memes are a great way to spread my faith and let people know what I believe," agreed Elizabeth Blankenship, a 26-year-old Catholic fencing instructor in Maryland. "It’s great because they are too short and cute to be preachy. If someone who doesn’t believe has a question about it, they turn into a great way to start a discussion."
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.