Conference helps dioceses find new roads on the ‘digital continent’

DISC Matt Meeks, chief digital and marketing officer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, speaks June 21 during the 34th Diocesan Information Systems Conference at the Embassy Suites in Livonia. The conference, which is hosted by different dioceses around the U.S. and Canada each year, was sponsored this year by the Archdiocese of Detroit. Dan Meloy | The Michigan Catholic

Technology leaders discuss Church’s role in evangelizing the online world

Livonia — Roman Catholics comprise an estimated 1.2 billion of 7.2 billion people in the world.

To reach a crowd that size would take a lot of church bulletins.

Thankfully, through the grace of God, mankind has developed the technology and systems to connect the world. So when Pope Francis sends out a tweet, 17.9 million people are reached.

Technology is critical to the Catholic Church’s evangelization efforts, and as the Archdiocese of Detroit hosted the annual Diocesan Information Systems Conference on June 19-21, representatives from 34 dioceses across Canada and the United States met at the Embassy Suites in Livonia to discuss how the Church can better use information technology to spread the Gospel.

“The apostles brought the good news in Greek and Roman ways, getting creative with the structures in place during their time,” said Matt Meeks, chief digital and marketing officer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a keynote speaker at the conference.

“Today, we’re living on the digital continent,” Meeks said June 21. “People are spending more time in the virtual world. If we look at the world, look at what we’re up against, you see a lack of love and creativity in response to God’s grace.”

The conference covered all aspects of information technology in the Church and how parishes can better use technology to minister to their flocks.

“This conference is about you serving the Church, using information technology for the service of the Lord,” Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron said during the conference’s Mass at Old St. Mary’s Church in Greektown, Detroit, on June 20. “Without the service you offer, we’d be hobbling. For us in the Church, what you do, see and communicate helps the entire Church offer God’s revelation to the world.”

During his keynote address, Meeks addressed the many challenges the Church faces in competing for people’s attention online.

Advances in technology have more closely connected the globe, but also have created a more divisive world where “echo chambers” exists and radical views are more easily expressed.

“The world is in need of a renaissance, and the recipe for a renaissance includes a physical location, hardship, renewal, a united people and faith,” Meeks said. “There are specific moments when those ingredients have come together. It’s no coincidence that Jesus chose to incarnate where He did. He chose to incarnate at the edge of an empire with a very complex, beautiful road system. That network of roads, the Diocletian road system, is where the diocesan system came from.

“The digital world has become man’s attempt to be God, to supplant God’s creation,” Meeks said. “But we have exactly what we need to work together. Our role is to bring the Church to the digital continent, protecting the Church through data, restoring the Church hierarchy by giving bishops authority, connecting them to our priests and laity.”

The third day of the conference was a “parish day,” allowing local pastors and parish staff to learn what resources they can harness to use technology to its fullest capacity.

Hank Hurbest, office manager at Holy Family Parish in Novi, attended hoping to learn best practices from other parishes and dioceses around the country.

“I’m very interested in a session on replacing telephone systems and how to do that; we have an antiquated system we’re looking to replace,” Hurbest said.

Hurbest said a “good day” in parish IT is when you don’t think about IT.

“Holy Family has embarked on a major evangelization program over the last three to four years,” Hurbest said. “IT helps us spend less time on administering the program, and more time executing the program.”

Pastors using technology to connect with parishioners isn’t new, but the conference allowed pastors to analyze how to yield better results from their online efforts.

“You have to be on social media, you have to use it,” Fr. Marc Gawronski, pastor of St. Gabriel Parish in Detroit, told The Michigan Catholic. “If you don’t, it’s like going through the fields instead of taking the roads; you’re using a lot of energy, but not meeting a lot of people. It’s incumbent on us pastors to learn about this phenomenon of interconnected technology and learn to embrace it, to use it to unleash the Gospel.”

From podcasts and Twitter to email sign-ups and parish apps, Fr. Gawronski said pastors can’t commit to just one medium of technology — noting that today’s youth aren’t connected on Facebook as much as prior generations. It is the message, not the medium, that’s important.

“If we trust God, God will speak to us in various ways, shapes and forms,” Fr. Gawronski said. “One of the great mysteries of faith is the Incarnation. The message will make itself known through human ways, including social media, a creation of human genius. As the Church embraces the Incarnation, it embraces the creation of technology. The Gospel has its own power and ability, and if we trust it, the medium becomes the message, just as the Word became flesh.”