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The Catholic Church faces an urgent call to evangelize the new “digital continent” of social media, according to a presentation to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) at their annual Fall General Assembly. Bishop Ronald Herzog of Alexandria, Louisiana, a member of the USCCB Communications Committee, delivered the presentation November 15.
“Although social media has been around for less than 10 years, it doesn’t have the makings of a fad,” said Bishop Herzog. “We’re being told that it is causing as fundamental a shift in communication patterns and behavior as the printing press did 500 years ago. And I don’t think I have to remind you of what happened when the Catholic Church was slow to adapt to that new technology,” he said, referencing the Protestant Reformation.
Bishop Herzog described the communication habits of young people today, which he noted have moved beyond email to the world of social media.
“If the Church is not on their mobile device, it doesn’t exist,” he said. “The Church does not have to change its teachings to reach young people, but we must deliver it to them in a new way.” He compared this outreach to evangelizing a new digital continent, and said the Church has serious challenges to overcome, noting, “Most of us don’t understand the culture.”
Bishop Herzog said the egalitarian nature of the Internet makes it particularly challenging to the Church.
“Anyone can create a blog,” he noted. “Everyone’s opinion is valid. And if a question or contradiction is posted, the digital natives expect a response and something resembling a conversation. We can choose not to enter into that cultural mindset, but we do so at great peril to the Church’s credibility and approachability in the minds of the natives, those who are growing up in this new culture. This is a new form of pastoral ministry.”
Bishop Herzog cited a survey of diocesan communications personnel conducted by the USCCB that saw great variation in the use of new media, with respondents expressing a desire to learn more about it and requesting training and additional resources. The most frequently requested resources were not additional dollars but staff who are trained in its use.