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Posted October 13, 2010

Like Jesus, church must use today's media
to tell stories, priest says

By Ed Wilkinson
Catholic News Service

NEW YORK (CNS) -- If Jesus wasn't afraid to speak about the birds of the air, why should the church be afraid to tweet, Jesuit Father James Martin asked as he addressed a communications luncheon in Manhattan.

"You ask church officials if they tweet and they usually laugh," said the author and culture editor of America magazine. But it isn't such a ridiculous question, he said, urging church communicators to employ Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

"The lack of attention to these sites conveys the impression that they are somehow beneath you," Father Martin said. Yet Jesus wasn't afraid to speak in the language of the people of his time.

"The parables were vivid stories, simple stories about farmers planting seeds, women sweeping their house, a man being beaten by robbers -- and easily understood by nature -- a mustard seed, lilies, birds, clouds," he said. "Jesus spoke the language of the people around him."

Father Martin was the guest speaker at the annual observance of World Communications Day Oct. 7 hosted by the Diocese of Brooklyn. It was held at the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan.

He spoke about the institutional church's use of digital media in its mission to proclaim the Gospel in the United States, saying the church succeeds when it has a firm presence on the Web.

"Their sites are there for the devout and the doubtful, and are great repositories of useful information," he said. But he said some are dull, unimaginative, static and hard to navigate.

He challenged church communicators to make the sites more interactive and use more than just text. He suggested more video, podcasts, slideshows and conversation. "Otherwise, don't be surprised at the lack of hits."

Websites need to be kept up-to-date, he said, because young people are used to fast-flowing and current digital information.

Father Martin found some good news in the fact that members of the hierarchy are bloggers. Challenges here include creating a real dialogue and allowing readers to respond in an honest and frank way.

"Accepting or publishing all those comments that are prompted by blogposts, even ones that disagree with church teaching, is another challenge which demands, besides some gentle correction and frequent catechesis, complete charity," he said.

He also issued a warning not to believe everything that is posted on so-called "Catholic" blogs. "Checking with the subject of a hateful blog is usually better than trusting a hateful blog," he said.

Father Martin also said the sex abuse crisis was an opportunity for the church to get its message out to the public.

If "you refuse to speak to the place where millions of people learn about the Catholic Church ... then don't be surprised if our message doesn't get out there, or is reported imperfectly," he said.

"No medium is beneath us, especially when it comes to proclaiming the Gospel," he said. "How terrible it would be if we didn't use all the tools available to us to communicate the Word. Inexcusable, I think."