By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 29, 2013
ATLANTA—As people video chat with friends, send Tweets, and post instant photos on Facebook, religious educators need to become “digital disciples” to continue to spread the faith. And it is a sister in a century-old religious community who is encouraging people to embrace social networks, blogging and “Web 2.0.”
“We are in a participatory culture,” said Sister Caroline Cerveny. “We need to be using (Internet-based tools). We can reflect something about our faith tradition.”
The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project in 2010 looked at how people use technology. It found that nearly one out of every three adults turns to the web for religious information. Another 2004 survey found some 82 million Americans use the Internet for religious and spiritual purposes, whether to receive an email with Scripture or follow the news about the pope.
According to Sister Caroline, the Catholic Church since the 1920s has supported using media to share the faith, but those messages have not always filtered down to Catholics in the pews. And when the Internet took off and then young people embraced social networks, some were skeptical about tapping into new media to spread the Gospel.
In some areas the church has fallen behind other faith traditions in evangelizing through the Web, she said. There is a current of fear, she said, but “it’s like the pencil, it’s like the typewriter, it’s a vehicle of communication.”
Sister Caroline, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph—Third Order of St. Francis, became interested in technology to share the faith starting in the early 1980s. She lives in Florida, where she runs a “Digital Discipleship Boot Camp,” and she writes at “A Cyberpilgrim’s Blog,” where she and others share catechesis tips. She was a featured presenter at the catechetical conference held at Transfiguration Church, Marietta, on Saturday, Aug. 24.
The old model is for religion teachers to lead discussions and assign reading. In her workshops, Sister Caroline encourages teachers to become familiar with the new low-cost tools that engage students and encourage collaboration.
The tools allow teachers and ministry leaders to tap into their students’ creativity, from starting blogs to setting up Facebook accounts, she said. Facebook is the most popular social network. If students are already on the social network, a teacher could set up a group for students. The teacher can post items any time, so the message of the Gospel is in front of students all week. Or students can blog about a saint and share it with others.
She encouraged teachers and others to first understand the diocesan policy on social media and interacting online with young people. The Atlanta Archdiocese requires ministry leaders to first get the permission of parents to engage with young people on social media and also parents must have access to everything shared with minors for a ministry, among other requirements. (The full policy is available at http://bit.ly/archatlsocialmediapolicy.)
And it isn’t just catechetical classes that can benefit. Sister Caroline said parishes should tap into social networks and be open to answering questions and engaging parish members and non-Catholics about the faith.
Social media is a way for people to share their faith with the click of a button, said Sister Caroline, who added she wants to “ignite a spark” among Catholic religious educators. “And that they take a spark and do something with it,” she said.