Priests like Fr. Mario Salvadori are using digital technology to reach out, but there is a feeling among many that more needs to be done. Photo by Evan Boudreau

Crossing the digital divide

  • November 18, 2012

TORONTO - Fr. Tom Gibbons believes the Catholic Church needs to strengthen its presence in the digital realm of parish life today to connect with the Catholics of tomorrow.

“I constantly have people coming up to me saying the Catholic Church doesn’t seem to talk to me any more. Technology has a role to bridge that gap,” said Gibbons, the associate pastor at Toronto’s St. Peter’s parish. “That being said we also have to be careful that the Mass doesn’t turn into a video game and that we’re worshipping God and not worshipping Google.”

As a former web developer for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, and one of the archdiocese of Toronto’s newest priests, having been ordained in May, Gibbons admits he’s likely more open to technology than the majority of his colleagues.

“With any technology I fall somewhere in between the spirit of Steve Jobs, where it is let’s keep on pushing the boundaries, and Jurassic Park where just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should,” he said. “There’s wisdom in navigating between those two, not always necessarily picking the one in the middle.”

What intrigues him is new technology’s potential to educate parishioners on what’s happening during the Mass — something he believes many in the pews don’t understand any more, causing them to feel disconnected.

“There’s no reason that there couldn’t be some (digital) interactive options before and after the Mass,” he said. “I do think that we could be more open to technology than we are, even in the liturgy.”

For this further integration to be successful, both in connecting with contemporary and future Catholics as well as preserving tradition, the conversation needs to start soon, said Gibbons. And that conversation must involve priests, bishops, theologians, academics and parishioners — especially those who feel disconnected from the current language of the Church.

While Gibbons said money keeps him from gently pushing the traditional boundaries by exploring the further integration of technology in the Mass, at least one priest in the archdiocese has overcome the financial hurdle.

When Fr. Mario Salvadori’s parish, St. Joseph the Worker in Thornhill, Ont., underwent a $1.3-million renovation, the businessman-turned-priest had the parish outfitted with a large screen on either side of the altar, a projector and a computer-friendly pulpit so he could reinforce the message of his homilies with digital media.

“If you are going to go beyond the traditional six-minute homily, you can’t keep their attention just verbally, you have to show them something,” said Salvadori. “The video puts an additional value into the message. The video helps to make another link that otherwise wouldn’t have been made.”

Although Salvadori’s willingness to integrate technology into the liturgy differs from that of Gibbons, both priests were able to agree that the Church needs to start speaking the language of the future — digital language.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to get someone with a tablet in the pews,” said Salvadori. “It’s about us as a Church better using technology to evangelize.”

Gibbons cites one factor in particular behind the Church’s deliberate pace — tradition.

“As a Catholic Church we tend to err on the side of tradition,” he said. “We ground our faith in tradition. Advances in technology tend to be a break in tradition.”

Neil McCarthy, director of communications for the archdiocese of Toronto, Ontario’s most digital diocese, understands this.

“Our approach is not to rush things, rather, to do it right than do it quickly,” said MacCarthy. “We are grounded in prayer and that can never be replaced by technology.”

While this sense of traditional stability is what Gibbons said attracted people to the Church in the past, it can create a barrier for younger Catholics who may feel out of touch with traditional methods to celebrate their faith.

“One of the knocks on the Catholic Church is that it’s so busy looking backwards that it forgets to look forward,” said Gibbons. “There are some ways in which I think religion should, needs, to bend to culture.”

It is happening slowly however. Many priests in the Greater Toronto Area are utilizing social media and uploading recordings of their homilies online, while many parishes have developed web sites. And MacCarthy said online fundraising shows great potential for an archdiocese the covers about 13,000 square kilometres, though it isn’t going to fully replace traditional forms of donating.

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