Friday, January 1, 2010

Local Priests enter cyberspace to expand ministry connections

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Technology will never replace the one-on-one physical presence required in ministry. But, today, clergy throughout the archdiocese recognize the value of social networking tools and “smart” cell phones.

Father Nels Gjengdahl, 29, said he has occasionally been mocked by other priests when they have seen him reading his daily prayers on his cell phone. Although he loves physical books, the iBreviary — an application that makes the daily prayer of the church accessible via an iPhone — puts all those prayers at his fingertips.

frnelsfacebook.jpg
Father Nels Gjengdahl has a little fun on his Facebook page, which he also views as an evangelization tool.
More important, Father Gjengdahl sees technology as “an avenue” to make connections with young people.

“For many young people, it may be the only way they know how to begin initiating a human relationship,” said Father Gjengdahl, associate pastor at St. Odilia in Shoreview. “It can be a means of building a real human relationship and inviting people into the community of a parish or the church as a whole.”

St. Odilia taps into technology by posting homilies as both text and audio on the parish Web site. Father Gjengdahl expands readership by posting his homilies on his Facebook page.

“The reality now is that the majority of people use Facebook to advertise or promote an event,” he said. “As people join Facebook and become friends of a parish, they can learn about events that are coming up very quickly, especially if they are using a cell phone that can receive updates.”

Another way to evangelize

Even more valuable is the possibility of spreading the Gospel in new ways, he said. Facebook has become a vehicle for young people to ask questions about church teaching about Mary, or why it does certain things, he said.

“That’s happened several times via Facebook here at the parish,” he explained. “People who might be interested in Catholicism or what Catholicism has to say can read it and learn about a parish or the church as a whole in a more discreet way.”

Father Erich Rutten, University of St. Thomas campus ministry director, said that although there is no substitute for physical presence, there is value to “virtual presence.”

“Being able to respond promptly to e-mail makes people feel you’re available and you are connected,” said Father Rutten, 43.

Although he doesn’t update his Facebook page constantly, Father Rutten acknowledges the importance of keeping up with the social networking tool.

“In terms of the university, I really think the thing students respond to most is if you are an authentic quality human being that they know is a good person that they can respect, and they respect your faith and prayerfulness,” he said. “But, it doesn’t hurt that they also see that you’re engaged and involved and present to them not only physically, but also in their world, which is all this electronic stuff.”

Facebook and Twitter — a microblogging service — and other social networking tools are “a tether to keep them connected to their faith and to the church,” said Father Rutten, adding that ministry is not only pastoral, but administrative.

“I think online tools, calendaring, scheduling, information sharing is helpful for how parishes and campus ministry operate,” he said. “All those things are administrative, but it’s tangibly a way we involve people and allow them to exercise their baptismal ministry of membership and participation.”

Father Robert Pish, dean of men at the St. Paul Seminary, said that faculty and staff members are just starting to tackle the questions of how to teach seminarians to best use today’s networking tools in ministry.

“This is the way people are communicating, today. Whether we like it or not, it is a way to reach out to people and we shouldn’t reject it out of hand,” he said.

In fact, Father Pish took advantage of the Facebook page he started while living and studying in Washington, D.C., to invite friends onto a private blog to discuss the homilies of Augustine.

“Through Facebook, I’m able to stay in contact with many more people than I would otherwise, and those little contacts can provide the opportunity for more significant contact in the future,” he said.

Despite their popularity, smart phones, social networking tools and myriad applications are not for every priest.

“Every priest has to ask the question: ‘Is this going to help me be more productive and successful in bringing people to Jesus Christ, or is it going to hinder my work,’” Father Gjengdahl said.


The following are among the “favorites” of Fathers Gjengdahl, Rutten and Pish.

Site faves
App faves
  • Dropbox — online storage that allows file access from any computer
  • Facebook — social network
  • Twitter — brief social and news updates
  • RSS feeds — Web site news notices
  • iBreviary — book of prayers
  • Googlewave — real time e-mail
The Catholic Spirit

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