Connecting a community of Catholics online

By  Meredith Gillis, Youth Speak News
  • March 6, 2015

One of the hardest things about moving to a small town is integrating into the community. After my last column was published, I was offered a job in northeastern Alberta and found myself moving to the town of St. Paul. It’s the centre of the diocese and at approximately 6,000 people it’s the smallest municipality I’ve ever called home.

I’ve joined the choir and made some friends, but for the most part I haven’t really been able to put down roots in the Church. The cathedral is large and well-attended, but most Sundays it feels as though I am the only unattached, non-clergy, non-religious, young adult there. I see young couples getting their babies baptized and grandparents visiting with their friends and families who have been in the area for generations.

Where I have found a sense of community with the Catholic Church is online. Web sites like Tumblr are home to many Catholics like myself. Young adults who attend Mass every week and yearn for friendships with other young adults who share their faith. Many are using the Internet as a new frontier of evangelization.

Tumblr is a blogging site where people post photos, text, links to articles and videos. They tag these posts with things like #catholic, #theology and #fruits of the spirit. Other users who follow those tags see these posts and often re-blog with their own set of tags. Sometimes people add comments; sometimes they say what they think in the tag. It’s beautifully chaotic.

The real beauty of Tumblr though is in the messaging feature. People see each other posting spiritually uplifting, honest things on the web site and send messages of encouragement. They reach out for a name on Facebook. There’s groups on Facebook specifically so all the Catholics on Tumblr can find each other. Most of them keep a list of all the Catholic blog names and their real life names. People comment and connect with each other on the group and then interact more on Tumblr.

We’re in to Lent now, and one of the things I saw in a few of these groups was, “If you’re giving up social media for Lent, please make a post and let us know so we don’t worry. See you at Easter!”

It’s the kind of thing that really exemplifies the communities developing online. It’s easy to assume that because people have never met in person they can’t possibly have as close a friendship as they’d have if they shared that English Lit class.

That kind of attitude really short-changes the veracity of online friendships and online communities. I think a lot of people are more themselves in some ways online. More willing to take that risk and be honest about how they’re feeling or what they think. There’s more likelihood of someone who agrees with or supports a lifestyle seeing the post and responding.

Internet friends find each other because you have something in common, but it doesn’t take long for conversation to get past the initial “I liked what you had to say about x” and in to the “these are the things happening in my life right now. What do you think I should do?”

The friendship keeps growing, and it’s agreed that you should meet up. Plans to attend the Vancouver 2010 Olympics as a group are hatched (and fall through). But then you find yourself in Washington, visiting some religious sisters and you know a couple who live nearby.

You go for coffee and it’s weird at first. You hang out and watch the planes land at the Reagan Airport and then they drop you back off at the sisters’ house. They’re the same good people you know online, but more real now.

You still live in a small town where you don’t know as many people as well as you’d like. But it’s a little less lonely.

(Gillis, 25, has an undergraduate degree in journalism from St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B.)

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