In mid-March, John Edwards, a Catholic podcaster from the Diocese of Memphis, Tennessee, was packing his suitcase to leave the next morning for a men’s conference in Milwaukee. He was scheduled to speak to a crowd of 4,000 men. His phone buzzed; it was a message saying that the conference was suddenly being canceled for public-health reasons. John stopped packing.
That same day, he was on the phone with another Catholic speaker, Matt Ingold, co-founder of Metanoia Catholic, who found out that a Catholic men’s conference in Memphis where he was scheduled to speak two weeks later was also being canceled due to the coronavirus. As news of entire dioceses closing down and public events being canceled were breaking across the U.S., Edwards and Ingold lamented together all of the missed opportunities for spiritual growth.
“We were bummed out,” Edward said, more than a month later. “These conferences are watershed moments for people. You hear guys say, ‘I went to confession for the first time in 18 years.’”
The two spoke again later that night. They both had been thinking about the idea of organizing a virtual conference for Catholics. Ingold offered to construct a website, and Edwards said he would try to contact some other Catholic speakers, both lesser known and higher profile. Within 24 hours, he had a dozen speakers, and ultimately more than 60 speakers who were willing to participate free of charge. “We thought we might get four, including us,” Edwards said with a laugh.
In a matter of weeks, speakers like Ascension Press author and podcaster Father Mike Schmitz, who is also a college chaplain, and EWTN’s Father Mitch Pacwa submitted their 20-minute videos with takeaway questions and headshots, and 65,000 people across the world registered for the free, on-demand event. Many of the speakers also held “live booth hours” on video platforms like Zoom, where registered attendees could ask direct questions to their favorite inspirational Catholics.
Adam Black, a young man in his 20s, was invited by his Catholic girlfriend to participate in the Virtual Catholic Conference. While watching one of Edwards’ sessions, he recalled, “Something hit me, and I started to cry out of nowhere, because I think I started to truly forgive myself for the things I have done.” Black said the conference “opened my eyes to a whole new light. I know that it’s the light of God.” Black began, for the first time, to accept God’s love for him. He started listening to Edwards’ podcast, “Just a Guy in the Pew,” and contacted Edwards to ask for help starting a men’s group from scratch at the only Catholic church in the Vermont town he recently moved to. Black had fallen away from practicing his Catholic faith until he started dating his girlfriend, but now, after the virtual conference, he is all-in.
“I never had faith and love for God like I do now. I knew there was a higher power, but now he has a name,” Black explained. “I have a lot of work to do in the name of Jesus Christ!”
And Black isn’t alone. Across the country, Catholics are discovering interactive opportunities for spiritual growth through their phones, tablets and computers, as ministries begin to “go virtual.”
The National Catholic Shift to Virtual
Over the past month, stuck at home because of SARS-CoV-2, hundreds of Catholic small groups and Rosary hours have occurred via video streaming. A Catholic conference has been offered digitally on demand. Millions of online viewers are attending daily Mass through Facebook Live and other services.
Brandon Vogt, the content director for Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, reported, “Our daily Mass videos have received over 5.6 million views from more than 225 countries involving more than 922,000 hours watched. And that ‘Word on Fire Daily Mass’ page has become our all-time most-visited page.”
Groups already entrenched in Catholic digital outreach are finding themselves busier than ever. “Things have ramped up a bunch regarding work and ministry,” Father Mike Schmitz, Duluth, Minnesota-based campus minister and presenter at Ascension Presents, commented via email.
But many Catholic parishes around the country with little to no prior experience helping their parishioners move closer to God through “web-based ministry” are also making strides and trying new things.
In Indianapolis, St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church decided to use technology to move nearly all of its regular ministry groups online. On top of that, they launched new virtual small groups through the video platform Zoom after their Sunday livestream Mass, dubbing these meetings of eight to 10 people the “Virtual Narthex.”
Said Megan Fish, St. John’s director of communication, “This helped form a ‘new normal’ for our parishioners (and new friends who have found and joined us online). Over the past weeks we have averaged between 150 and 160 people in small groups across 16 groups. Many of the groups have stayed consistent throughout this time of quarantine, and thus new friendships have been formed.”
Father Rick Nagel, St. John’s pastor, explained, “We have found that people are seeking God in these days, sometimes without even knowing it, and we are grateful for the opportunity to journey alongside our parishioners and friends through the Virtual Narthex (and other online outreach) in these quarantine days — and beyond, once churches are back open. We have great hope that the Lord is moving in the hearts of all around the world to bring souls back to him!”
Catholic Speakers Get on Instagram
You can’t beat parish missions and live conferences, according to Joe Condit, founder of CatholicSpeakers.com. But, he says, the coronavirus pandemic has had the unforeseen positive effect of rapidly bringing many Catholic churches, events and conferences into the digital era — something that was needed.
Now, Condit, and former 40 Days for Life CEO David Bereit are hoping to help many organizations pivot toward a combination of live and digital event-planning. Live events nurture the local community, while events hosted online open up “wonderful organizations” to a global audience, says Condit.
When the stay-at-home orders started, Condit decided to launch a new inspirational Catholic speaking series via Instagram Live called “inspireWord.” Viewers find out about the 30-minute events — live internet broadcasts viewable primarily on smartphones or social-media sites — through social-media shares or announcements made by their favorite Catholic speakers. At the designated time, the speaker starts broadcasting, often from their own home.
Condit says that viewers love feeling like they’re on a personal FaceTime call with their favorite faith-based inspirational speakers. In one recent broadcast by Taylor Schroll, founder of Forte Catholic, a live viewer digitally “asked” (a chat message) a question that they had been puzzling over: “Is the coronavirus from God, or something he allowed?” Schroll shared that God does not cause or send sickness and death, along with a few other thoughts.
Catholic author and EWTN television host Teresa Tomeo hosted an inspireWord Instagram Live broadcast from her living room on the same day that she had buried her mother. It was a tearful, but powerful, moment of sharing grief, hope and love for Christ in the midst of hardship. One viewer emailed inspireWord afterward to say that they had been angry at God for a long time, but after seeing Tomeo’s broadcast, their heart was softened toward Christianity.
“I don’t think they would have gotten that kind of inspiration from a newscast,” said Condit.
Diving Into Digital Formation
In addition to looking for inspiration, prayer and social support online, Catholics are seeking deeper spiritual formation. The Avila Institute and SpiritualDirection.com, Catholic apostolates founded by radio hosts Dan and Stephanie Burke, have seen remarkable increased interest and engagement with their online offerings.
Their “Sunday Evening Reflection” webinars, for example, continue weekly — with a 400% increase in participants. Classes at the Avila Institute are seeing up to a 71% increase in enrollment. The reason?
Reflected Stephanie Burke, executive director of the Avila Foundation, “During this time of isolation, people are alone and hungry for spiritual sustenance. I am so grateful what we already do is striking a chord in the hearts of the faithful and we are able to serve them.”
Kathryn Elliott, a Catholic freelance writer and media consultant,
is the founder of E-pulpit.com.