WASHINGTON — For millions of Catholics around the globe, the road to World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro wasn’t by plane, train or bus, but by new methods: Facebook, Twitter and apps.
Catholics took advantage of the opportunity to follow Pope Francis to Rio as "social pilgrims," using a variety of new and social-media platforms to engage in the World Youth Day experience.
Already, 2.6 million English Twitter users and 2.8 million Spanish Twitter users follow Pope Francis (who tweets under the handle @Pontifex), whose daily "tweets" (140-character messages) have been described as a "lectio divina for Catholics" on which to meditate for the day.
Pope Francis has encouraged the idea of the social pilgrim. The Holy Father announced that Catholics who couldn’t be physically present with the Pope at World Youth Day in Rio could receive the same indulgence as the Rio pilgrims by taking up the same pilgrim spirit and following prayerfully the spiritual events through social media, as well as television and radio.
"Social media is allowing a lot more people from the United States to be involved than in years past," said Paul Jarzembowski, program coordinator for Youth and Young Adult Ministry at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.
In previous years, Catholic youth and young adults who could not afford to go to World Youth Day or did not have the ability or incentive to travel would have to wait until other pilgrims returned to their home parishes to partake in the experience, explained Jarzembowski.
World Youth Day organizers prepared for 2.5 million participants. This year, more than 9,000 Americans registered for World Youth Day, considerably fewer than the 29,000 that registered for 2011 WYD in Madrid, although final numbers were forthcoming.
"But now, the people who are staying back can have a similar networked experience with those pilgrims and journey alongside them," Jarzembowski said. "I think [social media] has really broadened the whole notion of what the World Youth Day pilgrimage is all about."
He said that many dioceses sent their own youth reporters, who tweeted and reported back their experiences home, and many bishops tweeted, too.
Variety of Tools
Catholics at home had a variety of tools to keep them intimately connected with the World Youth Day pilgrim experience — even in real time. For Catholics in North America, Rio de Janeiro is one hour ahead of U.S. Eastern Daylight Time.
Social pilgrims could access the official WYD app at the iTunes store. They could also access the Follow the Cross WYD app and follow WYD through an app from Xt3, a Catholic social-media platform. Canadian Catholic television station Salt & Light carried a live-stream feed that could be accessed by computer, tablet or smartphone, as did the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA. All events could be seen live on Eternal Word Television Network. EWTN also streamed events live online. The Register was also in Rio, so readers could follow along at NCRegister.com and on social media.
The Pontifical Council for Social Communications also teamed up with Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera (Corriere.it) to produce The Rio Daily at Pope2You.net, including daily videos of young pilgrims, photographs and testimonies that were publicized through Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
The theme of World Youth Day was "Go, Make Disciples of All Nations," and Catholic dioceses and archdioceses took to Facebook and Twitter to help get youth and young adults engaged in the World Youth Day experience.
"We had a top 10 list on our Facebook page of reasons to come to WYD Chicago," said Clarissa Aljentera, social-media coordinator in the Chicago Archdiocese’s Catechesis and Youth Ministry Office. The archdiocese hosted a regional WYD celebration in Chicago for 1,500 high-school age youth, complete with workshops and keynote addresses. She said they raised awareness through Facebook and created a YouTube video that people could share to spread the word.
At least 18 dioceses and archdioceses promoted their own WYD events to complement the celebrations in Rio. The Washington Archdiocese said social media was playing a big role for young adults who participated in their regional WYD experience.
Throughout its Twitter, Facebook and young-adult-focused website, the archdiocese promoted the saint of the day, highlights from WYD, as well as live feeds of the events and links to the catechetical sessions and the evening vigil Mass, among other things.
Years ago, Christ’s mission to "go out and make disciples" meant traveling by foot to get the Gospel message out to other communities, said Sarah Yaklic, the Archdiocese of Washington’s digital-media director. "Now it means us being present on social media."
Sharing is key to social media, and Yaklic said that Rio pilgrims on social media should tweet, retweet and share quotes and reflections on Facebook or their blogs. Yaklic recommended following the official World Youth Day Twitter (@WYD_en) and putting hashtags #Rio2013 or #JMJ (stands for Jornada Mundial da la Juventud) to make the message more easily shared.
Said Yaklic, "It’s important not only to retweet and share, but also to respond to questions."
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.