The Catholics Next Door — and Via New Media
Greg and Jennifer Willits broke away from the corporate world to devote their lives to Catholic new media. They talk about what the Church needs to do to invest in the future.
Greg and Jennifer Willits are pioneers in Catholic new media.
The Willitses were among the first Catholics to begin podcasting. They’ve produced their own video series for YouTube, and they now host a daily radio show, The Catholics Next Door, which airs from 10am-1pm EST Monday through Friday on Sirius/XM’s Catholic Channel (Sirius 159/XM 117).
What were the two of you doing prior to all of your forays into Catholic New Media?
Jennifer: I was a stay-at-home mom.
Greg: I was working as a Web and software developer in the IT industry.
What was your faith background growing up?
Jennifer: I was born in New York and raised in the Atlanta area. I was a non-denominational Christian. I came into the Catholic Church at the Easter vigil in 1999.
Greg: I was born in and lived most of my life in Atlanta. I’m a cradle Catholic. Yet, while I’ve always gone to Mass, I haven’t always done a good job of practicing my faith.
I started taking my faith more seriously when I thought about leaving it around 1999-2000. I was very entranced by a lot of the non-Catholic preaching I was reading and which promised me a lot of stuff. People were questioning my faith, and I didn’t have answers.
How did the two of you meet?
Jennifer: We met in 1994 as students at Georgia State University, through the theater department.
Greg: I saw open auditions for the winter play, Prelude to a Kiss and was cast as the male lead. Jennifer was cast as the female lead. We met in December, started dating in February, got engaged in March, and were married in September.
What led you to consider Catholicism?
Jennifer: After the birth of our first child, I knew we had to make a decision about how we were going to raise him in the faith. I knew I wanted him to know God, but wondered what church we were going to go to to educate him. I resisted it for a long time. After about a year, I realized he needed to be baptized, so we had him baptized in the Catholic Church. Two of the three of us were Catholic, so I was the odd one out. I felt like I was being called, so I set about learning about the faith and having my questions answered. All of the obstacles I had were removed.
Greg: I went on a Cursillo retreat for the first time in 1999. That was the first time I started asking questions — about the Eucharist, in particular. It was the first time that the Eucharist became the source and summit of my faith, as it was supposed to be all along.
After Jennifer converted, we got so on fire for Christ. We were reading whatever was popular, thinking we were living our faith as Christians … but we weren’t necessarily Catholic. We were reading so many non-Catholic books that it got confusing. I was in misery with my work. Despite living my life for God, I felt like there was a lot of suffering. I thought everything was supposed to be rosy. Then I started reading about the redemptive nature of suffering. Catholicism was the only place that told me that life was going to hurt sometimes and that that was okay.
What led to your Catholic apostolic work?
Greg: In 2005, I lost my job and started doing some freelance work for Catholic nonprofits. I got a taste of what it was like to work full-time for the Church. Our podcast began in the spring of 2005. Rosary Army was the first organization to use podcasting to reach out to people. It was us sharing our lives and sharing about our work. By the end of 2006, we had thousands of listeners and were doing two shows per week.
The Rosary Army kept growing. I had two full-time jobs. I was staying up late and giving up my weekends to work on the apostolate.
By the end of my first year at a new company, I realized that we had come to a crossroads. We either had to quit everything we were doing in new media, or I had to leave my regular employment and take a huge leap of faith.
We realized that we either had to stop podcasting or do it full-time. We had become friends with Father Roderick Vonhögen and had experience running a Catholic nonprofit, so he asked us to become founding officers of SQPN.com (the Star Quest Production Network).
Jennifer: We did over 240 Rosary Army podcasts and created quite a community of followers. Good friendships, such as with Mac and Katherine Barron of Catholic in a Small Town, came from that.
Eventually, we had to commit to walking away from the corporate job without knowing if we had the funding. The option that required more faith was the one we chose.
How did That Catholic Show come about?
Greg: During our second year of doing ministry full-time, we felt the need to kick things up. At first, we thought we would do a five-minute daily Catholic news podcast, but after doing some tests, we wanted to show that Catholics can be doing interesting things online using video. We modeled the show after HGTV and the Food Network.
We wanted to create something memorable and unique to the Catholic world to inspire others to do their own things. We produced eight episodes of That Catholic Show and got a little over 300,000 hits total. A lot of parishes use it in their classes.
Where do you see Catholic new media headed?
Greg: We need to do better. Both Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II said we need to be using this media. There are so many talented people willing and able to create it, but to create content that equals and exceeds what the secular industry creates, it has to look better. We look like we’re 20 years behind. We need Catholics to help get the word out, and we need those with big wallets to invest in this.
Catholic bloggers, on the whole, get it. This year at the Catholic New Media Celebration, there was an awareness of the need to become more professional. As quickly as many Catholics embraced podcasting, it’s easy for us to become complacent. We need to continually be critical of ourselves. CatholicTV is doing a great job of looking at how to use the new technologies, such as high definition and iPad applications. Who else is doing that? We cannot wait five years to see if something is going to stick before we embrace it. The Catholic Church needs to be leading the way. Every single Catholic organization involved with Catholic media should be doing the same thing, and every Catholic with a wallet needs to support it.
We’ve formed a Catholic New Media User’s Group in Atlanta and are hoping that others will start them elsewhere. We can’t just be part of the virtual online body of Christ. We need to be around people and have people meet face-to-face to get the ball rolling. The Catholic New Media Celebration brought together people from podcasting, blogging, print and television. It wasn’t just for learning, but for the purpose of celebrating and connecting on a human level.
Register senior writer Tim Drake writes from St. Joseph, Minnesota.