By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published July 3, 2008
PIt was a Catholic techie’s dream. Hundreds of proudly self-professed geeks came together for the first Catholic New Media Celebration June 22, the day after the annual Eucharistic Congress sponsored by the Atlanta Archdiocese.
There was delight-filled interaction among those in the crowd as priests and lay people alike compared iPhones and iPods, podcasting equipment and computers. But there was also a focus on the real purpose of the day— building a community among Catholics evangelizing at the edge of technology.
The day was sponsored by Star Quest Production Network, a nonprofit multimedia organization founded in the Netherlands and now based in
Conyers that is centered around the production of audio and video programs faithful to the teachings of the Catholic Church. The gathering addressed the role of new media in the church and exactly how various forms and expressions could come together as one.
Panel discussions and presentations on blogging, podcasts, traditional media vs. new media led those gathered through a day of learning and exploration, helping to assist experts and novices with how to improve, or maybe even begin, using new media to spread the Gospel.
As the crowd assembled outside the exhibition hall to check out vendors, which included organizations such as Catholic Match, 4Marks and The Maximus Group, those in charge of the celebration were putting the final touches on the media-drenched gathering space.
After the doors opened, people found goodie bags full of new media paraphernalia on their seats. Father Bill Kessler, known in the blogging world as “Technopriest,” led a prayer to focus the day.
“We have gathered here in your name, as we seek to spread the good news of salvation through the modern media,” he said.
Greg Willits, chief operating officer of SQPN, greeted the crowd with enthusiasm.
“We are thrilled that you are here,” said Willits. “Today is going to be a day to learn. … It’s about the work we still have to do.”
Willits emphasized the need for a community of those involved in new media, a sentiment that was repeated throughout the day. He joked that he now has “more friends online than … in real life.”
Willits then introduced the event’s first act, Popple, a catchy guitar duo featuring Kyle Heimann and Dan Harms.
The young men seamlessly blended Simon and Garfunkel-esque harmonies with hilarious lyrics about video games, middle school puppy love and converting to binary. But the duo also captured the meaning and purpose of new media in a song they wrote for the event.
“Welcome to the shift, welcome to the change, to a new evangelization, a new way of spreading the Word,” Popple sang. “The Word stays the same, but the vessels have changed in the new evangelization, in a new Catholic media.”
The day’s keynote speaker was Father Leo Patalinghug, a Baltimore priest who is the author of a book and blog called “Grace Before Meals” that may become a PBS program.
Father Patalinghug confessed that he is not a geek but still is able to perceive that new media is “new missionary territory.”
“Catholics have to understand the importance of the new media,” said Father Patalinghug. “What we don’t realize is that Jesus was such a new evangelizer.”
The priest encouraged those who podcast to continue doing it regularly and for those who are new to the scene to learn from those already participating in the new media. The secular media is telling the “Catholic story” for the church and quite often muddles its true message, he said.
“If God can ordain me and use me in the media, there is still hope,” he joked. “If we don’t tell this story, someone else will.”
Father Patalinghug continued to emphasize that all can be a part of this new evangelization, as long as they work together and help those who need support.
“Go out into the deep, new missionaries … and feed his sheep,” Father Patalinghug concluded.
The Catholic New Media Celebration used several discussion panels throughout the day to address topics such as podcasts, blogs and the differences, challenges and potential of traditional media versus new media. The first panel brought together panelists from varying media backgrounds to discuss the differences between traditional media, consisting primarily of radio, newspapers and television, and new media, comprising most electronic media like podcasts and blogs.
Moderated by Lino Rulli, “The Catholic Guy” from Sirius Satellite Radio, the friendly discussion brought to light some of the concerns of these two seemingly competitive methods.
One of Rulli’s first questions was directed at the traditional media panelists, asking them if they feel threatened by the new media that is becoming more and more popular.
Thom Price, radio programming director for Eternal World Television Network (EWTN), said that all Catholic media is working for the same end, which ultimately is the salvation of souls, and that he does not feel threatened by the new media.
Lisa Wheeler, executive vice president and co-founder of The Maximus Group, a full-service Catholic communications and marketing agency, echoed this sentiment.
“Our goal is to support the communities creating the podcasts,” she said, dismissing any thought that old media is “competing” against new media.
Father Robert Reed of CatholicTV made a unifying statement about the two methods of evangelization.
“It’s when we give meaning to the media … that it becomes powerful,” he said.
When asked how the two methods can begin working together, the panelists were unified in their belief that it is through collaboration that they will be the most effective.
Jessica Handley, webmaster for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, pointed out that most people do not just listen to podcasts or watch online video, but rather most people take advantage of many forms of media, which makes collaboration all the more important.
“We have to reach people where they are,” said Susan Gerdvil, a representative of www.CatholicsComeHome.org, a Web site that offers resources to help people understand more clearly the Catholic Church and its teachings.
In the end, the panelists agreed that success is not necessarily measured by how many people read their newspaper or download their podcasts, but by how many people are affected because of the content they provide to those seeking answers.
Regina Gomez made the trip from Virginia Beach, Va., to attend the Eucharistic Congress June 20-21 with her goddaughter, Clareth Alvarez, a parishioner of St. Monica Church in Duluth. The two of them decided to also attend the Catholic New Media Celebration. Gomez, who runs a Spanish-English newspaper with her husband, believes that new media is an important part of the present—and future—of the church.
“We need to be out there. The Catholic Church needs to be out there because the secular world is out there. We need to offer people an alternative to the negative things you can find on the Internet,” Gomez said.
Alvarez believes that she was drawn to the conference for a reason.
“I think it was God’s will for me to come today. I have a lot of questions about the church and my faith. And now I know I can read these blogs and listen to these other Catholics and get answers to my questions,” she said. “I have learned there is so much out there to help me grow as a Catholic.”
Also contributing to this story was Erika Anderson.