MANILA, Philippines — Frequenters of Internet chat rooms and instant-messaging services may recognize "OMG" as shorthand for a phrase that takes the Lord’s name in vain.
But a Catholic youth group in the Philippines has co-opted the familiar string of letters to explain who they are: "Online Missionaries of God."
It’s just one example of how the members of Youth Pinoy are using social media and the Internet, platforms that are also hotbeds for secularism, to advance the New Evangelization.
The group is "an alliance of young Filipinos who bear witness to their Catholic faith through creative means of expression published through the Web," said Sky Ortigas, one of Youth Pinoy’s founding members. "We feel a moral obligation to respond to the signs of [the] times by reminding our peers as well as the upcoming generation to invite Christ into social media."
The growing importance of Youth Pinoy was highlighted last November, when Msgr. Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, traveled to Manila to serve as the keynote speaker at the group’s second annual Catholic Social Media Summit. Msgr. Tighe spoke about the development of the Vatican’s social-media strategy, including the first tweets by Pope Benedict XVI and the launch of the official Vatican news portal. He encouraged young Filipinos to continue developing innovative ways of sharing their Catholic faith on the Web.
"We must be present, and we must be witnesses in social media," Msgr. Tighe said in a talk to Youth Pinoy core members. "But it is not enough just to quote the Bible or the Catechism. It’s more about spending time with people, engaging them and showing that you care about them as a person. Then, maybe, it will be time to share with them the reason for the hope that is in you."
"It was such a wonderful inspiration to know that someone from the Vatican knew about our work and came here to give us that message," said Kris Bayos, another founder of Youth Pinoy, who is also a secular newspaper journalist.
The group received inspiration more recently, too, when Pope Francis called the Internet "a gift from God" in his 2014 Message for World Communications Day. The Pope also called upon Catholics to respond to changes in communications and information technologies with "fresh energy and imagination, as we seek to share with others the beauty of God," a message that resonates strongly with Youth Pinoy’s mission to "win the world through the word."
The Holy Father carried on the messages of his predecessors in encouraging the faithful to use new technology to spread the Gospel.
Youth Pinoy has already taken this message to heart, Bayos noted, and the group has inspired many other young people to use their professional training for the promotion of the Gospel. She says Youth Pinoy helps them realize that being a young professional with a college degree does not mean one has to move in a secular direction.
"I am carrying out my vocation as a Catholic communicator," Bayos said. "God has given me the skills, and I have the mission to use those skills in the media apostolate. We offer a platform for others to do the same thing."
In one high-profile example of the group’s ministry, the Youth Pinoy core group traveled last summer to World Youth Day 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where they tweeted messages and posted videos of young people talking about their lives and their faith.
Although the Philippines is a majority Catholic country — with more than 80% of the population professing the faith — there are signs that young people are drifting from the Church. Challenges come from evangelical-Protestant sects that promise small-community support and emotional worship services, as well as from a growing secularism fed by Western media and the influence of international organizations promoting sexual license and contraception.
Young people, especially those in the teeming urban areas, such as Manila, are tech-savvy, engaging in the full range of social media and spending a large part of their time online. Like good evangelists, Youth Pinoy members are there on the Web to meet them, speaking a relatable language.
The term "pinoy" is a slang term for "Filipino" that has been used for generations, but it takes on new resonance when coupled with the word "youth," said Ortigas.
"Youth today, because of social media and technology, are not so much following their parents when it comes to religion or the culture," she explained. "There is a culture of young people on the Web who are forming their own ideas and habits, and not all of it is good and positive. We are out there on the Web to be with the youth where they are online and to show them how our faith is really the answer to so many of their questions and problems, though they wouldn’t think so at first."
Youth Pinoy was founded by a core group of young laypersons in Manila under the guidance of the Youth Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. The website, YouthPinoy.com, was launched in January 2010.
With nearly 20,000 Facebook "likes" and 1,000 Twitter followers, the group has a solid base for getting its message out on the information highway. Recent posts have attention-getting titles: "How Confession Saved Me From My Bi-Polar Disorder" and "God Used a Vendo [Vending] Machine to Teach Me About Grace."
The group also tweets about popular TV episodes and movies and offers advice on love, relationships and jobs.
Social Media to Social Action
But the efforts of Youth Pinoy aren’t confined to evangelizing the Internet. The group’s members also use their social-media skills to engage in social action.
Last October, when a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Visayas, the central part of the Philippines, and Typhoon Haiyan devastated the same region a month later, the group used social media to make young people aware of humanitarian needs and how to help.
They also began using the Pedrito doll, which had been created for the recent canonization of teen martyr St. Pedro Calunsgod, to raise money for the victims of the disaster. Nearly 2,000 dolls have been sold, raising about $5,000.
"The doll has been a great blessing," Ortigas said. "St. Pedro was from the Visayas area, which suffered the earthquake and typhoon, and we had the doll made up already to help promote him among the young people. So when the disasters happened, we knew that we had to use the doll also to help the people from his area."
Blair Jereza, a core member of Youth Pinoy, is a young Manila artist who designed the doll. He said that a sign that God is behind the success of the Pedrito doll is that it is being used in ways that he never imagined.
"My goal as a missionary is just to be a good witness of Christ’s greatness in my life and to follow Jesus every day," Jereza said. "Christ is the Light; we are not. We are like light bulbs. If we allow ourselves to be connected to the source, then we will illuminate and radiate this light of Christ to the world."
Maria Caulfield writes from