Digital Missionaries: Proclaiming the Gospel to the Church’s New Frontier

COMMENTARY: The Synod on Synodality recognizes that the internet is not just a tool but a culture which we are called to enculturate with the Gospel.

X account (formerly known as Twitter) of Pope Francis is seen on a mobile cellphone.
X account (formerly known as Twitter) of Pope Francis is seen on a mobile cellphone. (photo: Christopher Furlong / Getty)

I have been on a journey discovering what the Holy Father wants and expects from the Synod on Synodality these last few years. 

He wants the Church to focus on how to carry out its mission. We are one Church, made up of persons and peoples with different callings, charisms, experiences, languages, and dreams. To be a Christian, Pope Francis says, is to help carry the mission forward: to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ “to all creation” (Mark 16:15). 

Yesterday, in Rome, the synod took a big step forward with the announcement of 10 Working Groups on important concerns raised during the October 2023 Session. The task is to meet the concerns with concrete proposals. At next October’s session, each Working Group will give a brief interim report, but the concrete proposals won’t be ready for another half a year or so. When they are ready, the Holy Father will share with the whole Church and see potential ways of implementation.

Most exciting for me are the groups focusing on the “Mission in the Digital Environment” and the “Listening to the Cry of the Poor.” Both seek responses to the call of the Holy Father for the Church to go out of itself towards others — especially those on all the different peripheries — so that it can be on Christ’s mission and carry His Love to the whole world.

The digital environment or Internet is where young people are spending most of their waking hours. It is filled with people in search of meaning and love, of Truth. They are searching for God, usually without even knowing it: “But how are they going to believe in Him, if they have never heard of him?” (Romans 10:14). The Church can be a beacon of hope in this often dark place, embodying Christ’s call to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). 

The conviction that the mission in the digital environment is a vital expression of what Pope Francis calls “una Iglesia en salida,” which is hard to translate into English but means “a Church that goes out of itself towards others.” This call rang loud and clear throughout the Synodal Assembly last October and now is being generously confirmed by the Pope with his Working Group announcement.

A New Frontier for Christ’s Mission

The “Mission in the Digital Environment” is outlined in Chapter 17 of the 42-page Synthesis Report produced at the conclusion of the first assembly of the synod last October. It marks an extraordinary development in the Church’s approach to evangelization. The assembly recognizes that the Internet is not just a tool but a culture which we are called to enculturate with the Gospel, as we have done for almost 20 centuries with cultures that didn’t know him.

The Internet is recognized as the new mission frontier, a crucial dimension of the Church’s witness in today’s world. As the report states:

“Digital culture represents a fundamental change in the way we conceive of reality and consequently relate to ourselves, one another, our surroundings, and even to God.”​

With this open understanding of the internet as a new mission frontier, the digital space is recognized as a vital arena where the Church is called to respond to Jesus’ call to “go to the ends of the Earth” and share his Word with the same fervor and adaptability it has demonstrated throughout nearly two millennia of missionary work. 

To embrace the new digital mission is not about adapting new technological instruments or about big budgets. It is an invitation to the Church to engage with the digital culture and learn to enculturate the Gospel there. And that means engaging with, accompanying, forming, and supporting those called to minister there.

The Same Mission in Today’s Reality

The Synthesis Report states: “Digital culture … is not so much a distinct area of mission as a crucial dimension of the Church’s witness in contemporary culture​.” This realization is inviting us to see the digital realm as a modern-day “Galilee of the Gentiles,” where the Church must reach out to souls to attract them to Christ and the sacraments. It’s not enough to post the parish announcements online or transmit the Mass.

Yet as the report highlights, “We cannot evangelize digital culture without first understanding it​​.” As past generations of missionaries discovered, when on a new mission frontier, the first essential step is to see how the people live and learn their language, get to know their culture, live with them, and start engaging with them. 

So those with the calling to be missionaries, led by the Holy Spirit and equipped and accompanied by the Church, immerse themselves in the digital culture. They begin by listening, they learn to navigate it. Thanks to digital missionaries, people encounter God’s healing love and are then attracted to the Church. Sometimes the journey from the digital realm to sacramental life is only a few steps, other times it can be hundreds!

Over the centuries the Holy Spirit has been guiding missionaries to the ends of the earth. Similarly, those who are called to this vocation and ministry today need the guidance, formation, and support of the Church. As the Synthesis Report emphasizes:

“We need to provide opportunities for recognizing, forming, and accompanying those already working as digital missionaries while also facilitating networking amongst them.”

To share the joy of the Gospel with some of those in the existential peripheries of the internet is an enormous grace for me. So the fact that there will be a Working Group focused on “Mission in the Digital Environment” fills me with joy. 

The Holy Father invites us to be innovative in forming new missionaries who navigate the complex and ever-changing online landscape and bring the timeless message of the Gospel there and express the love of Christ to all. Let’s go meet people where they are and introduce them to He who is Love! Let’s go evangelize online!

José Manuel De Urquidi is the founder of Juan Diego & Co., which partners with Catholic organizations that want to connect with US Latinos through strategy, marketing and content creation, and attract them to Christ through their ministry. He is also the founder of Juan Diego Network, with more than 90 different podcasts created to evangelize, form and entertain Hispanics. He is currently serving as a delegate to the Synod on Synodality and has been involved since the first phase with what is being called the Digital Synod.