Instagram bishop: How Archbishop Russell discovered power of social media

Archbishop Paul F. Russell walks the grounds of a newly restored Syrian Catholic church on the border of Turkey and Syria in May 2018. Despite being a majority Muslim country, Turkey is home to some of Christianity's most important historical and spiritual sites, he said. Four years ago, Archbishop Russell began an Instagram page to share some of the beauty he found hidden among the countryside. (Courtesy of Archbishop Paul F. Russell)

Detroit’s newest auxiliary bishop posts often connecting the beautiful churches and nature he observes with spiritual reflections

DETROIT — When one considers the definition of a “social media influencer,” a Catholic archbishop probably isn’t high on the list.

But Archbishop Paul F. Russell, Detroit’s newest auxiliary bishop, has mastered the art of Instagram.

Emphasis on the “art.”

Archbishop Russell’s Instagram feed, which he started four years ago while serving as apostolic nuncio to Turkey, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, is as much a creative outlet for the 63-year-old archbishop as it is a chance to reach the younger generation with the truth of the Gospel, he said.

“It’s important for the Church to reach out to people to find them where they are, and so I decided to start an Instagram page,” Archbishop Russell told Detroit Catholic. “It’s not an office or a department posting for me; it’s really me.”

Rather than a collection of “selfies” or carefully manicured food platters, however, Archbishop Russell’s Instagram is a masterful mix of classic Catholic art and reflections, beautiful church architecture, breathtaking nature scenes and the occasional personal update.

Most of the photography the archbishop takes himself, he said.

“I like to share some of the beautiful churches and chapels I come across. There’s beauty in our places of worship; these are places where we encounter God,” Archbishop Russell said.

The idea began when Archbishop Russell was stationed in Turkey, a country that’s 99 percent Muslim, he said. While Christians make up just 0.4 percent of the current population, it’s a region with rich historical and biblical ties to the Catholic and Orthodox faiths.

“People are under the impression that it’s a completely Muslim country, but in fact, the Church from the beginning of the apostles has a rich history in Turkey,” Archbishop Russell said. “The ancient city of Antioch, where St. Peter and St. Paul were, is within the boundaries of modern-day Turkey. It’s possible to go to the grotto where they celebrated Mass.

“Similarly, the city of Ephesus is a modern-day ruin, but there are still the original paving stones where St. Paul definitely walked,” the archbishop continued. “Some of the oldest representations of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Paul are in Ephesus. The house of the Blessed Virgin Mary is there in the hills of Ephesus. That’s on my Instagram page.”

When Archbishop Russell posts a picture or painting, he often accompanies it with a reflection from the Sunday Scriptures.

It’s not just beautiful historic churches and sites that catch Archbishop Russell’s eye. The page is replete with classic examples of Christian art, often with poignant messages and observations about current events.

In one post, Archbishop Russell reflected upon Luc Olivier Merson’s 19th century “Rest on the Flight into Egypt,” which depicts the Blessed Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child asleep in the arms of the Sphynx.

Just like the Holy Family’s difficult flight, Christian refugees today face similar struggles, especially Christian refugees in Turkey fleeing violence in the Holy Land, Archbishop Russell said.

Something must be working, he said, because it’s led to numerous interactions with members of the faithful, or even just the public at large, who leave comments and send personal messages. The page has more than 1,400 followers, most of them younger.

“Sometimes people will message me with a DM (direct message), and I will try to respond to those, especially if it’s someone asking for prayer,” he said. “The purpose is to reach out to people and meet them where they are.”

As Archbishop Russell returns to the Archdiocese of Detroit, he plans to keep sharing; Detroit, he says, has no shortage of beautiful churches and fascinating subjects.

Follow Archbishop Russell on Instagram

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