Connecting with God in the digital age

(COMMENTARY) Here’s something very few people know – the first televangelist was a Roman Catholic. For a 20-year period starting in 1930, the voice of Bishop Fulton Sheen could be heard on radios across the country with his late-night program The Catholic Hour. The show attracted 30 million listeners a week and in the 1950s, Sheen moved his program to television, renaming it Life is Worth Living. The show was watched in 5.5 million households and exerted tremendous influence. Sheen made plenty of enemies among those in the Catholic hierarchy and he would reinvent himself once again in the 1960s – a time of much turmoil and shift in cultural mores – with his syndicated TV program The Fulton Sheen Program.

Sheen was ubiquitous and a media superstar until his death in 1979. The post-Vatican II years – where the Catholic Church underwent dramatic reforms – also coincided with a period where Catholic messaging seemingly disappeared from the airwaves at a time when more choices were being made available to Americans. Sheen’s staunch anti-Communism was replaced in the 1980s by Pope John Paul II’s global charisma and Ronald Reagan’s tough foreign policy, both of which contributed to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

As communication is essential to the Church’s identity, the present cultural shift marked by the digital media is of utmost importance as it touches all of the Church’s ministerial activity, on a global and local level.
— Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, Professor of Pastoral Theology at Notre Dame Seminary

At the same time, the emergence of cable networks and use of satellite dishes grew exponentially. Television became dominated by Protestant ministers such as Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, Robert Schuller and Charles Stanley. Towering above all of them was Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. Founded in 1966, it became a national TV program as more people gained access to cable TV. Its flagship program, The 700 Club, remains popular to this day. It was during this time that Robertson’s religious messaging became strong enough that he turned it into political capital – mounting an unsuccessful presidential run (and winning four contests) during the 1988 Republican primaries eventually won by George H.W. Bush. Robertson may have lost that election, but his influence on the party’s platform – something that has brought together conservatives of all faiths – lives on in the Trump presidency.

Throughout the ‘80s, most Catholics lived in a media desert. Those on the conservative side of the spectrum gravitated towards Robertson’s brand of Christianity. Aside for a select few publications and diocesan newspapers, such as Catholic New York, there was little in the mainstream to help followers stay informed. It was also a time when New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor received lots of news coverage for his outspoken opposition to abortion and the LGBT community, a politically-charged time that catapulted him into the national spotlight.

Last June, Pope Francis became the most-followed world leader on Twitter – with 34 million followers and growing –
surpassing President Donald Trump.

The internet and the proliferation of thousands of websites, blogs and YouTube channels has forced Catholicism into the communications age. While Catholic New York still produces a weekly printed edition available in parishes, the eyeballs are on the internet. That is where a growing majority of people get their information. The Catholic Church, and religious media of all faiths, have had to adapt. The internet has brought with it new attention to Catholic-focused publications with a longstanding one such as America magazine, which was founded in 1909, and The National Catholic Register, founded in 1927, as well as newer outlets such as Crux Now and 

As Christians enter the season of Lent, the mission of these sites is as paramount as ever – to spread the words of the Gospel and inform Catholics, through news stories and commentary, about the politics and culture around us. The mainstream press is not the least interested in such a mission – nor should it really be. While the MSM should broaden its religion coverage and report on matters of faith and influence on the lives of so many Americans, it has largely become the role of the religious-based press – and the communication tools of the 21st century – to fill the void and make that part of its mission.

In her 2014 book, Connected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age, Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, professor of pastoral theology at Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, wrote: “No longer just tools and instruments, the digital media have created a cultural milieu in which how we communicate, gain understanding, and relate to one another is changing. In the midst of these cultural changes, the Church’s fundamental evangelizing mission remains the same: the great commission to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all the world. As communication is essential to the Church’s identity, the present cultural shift marked by the digital media is of utmost importance as it touches all of the Church’s ministerial activity, on a global and local level. From the curial offices of the Vatican to the parish youth minister, we are all thinking about how to help make present the Gospel message in this emerging culture.”

There are now several television and web-based outlets across the Catholic spectrum fighting for attention. New Evangelization Television, also known as NET, is operated by a subsidiary run by the Brooklyn Diocese in New York. Founded as The Prayer Channel in 1988, the station has done a very good job contextualizing what current events and trends mean to Catholics and how people of faith fit in this ever-changing world. It was founded as an alternative to daytime talk-shows and reality-TV programs that grew during this era that has become part of the diet of so many millions of Americans each day. 

The Vatican has also upped its communications game in recent years. Last June, Pope Francis became the most-followed world leader on Twitter – with 34 million followers and growing – surpassing President Donald Trump. In 2012, the Vatican hired Greg Burke, a former Fox News correspondent, to run its communications office.

“I know what journalists are looking for and what they need,” Burke told reporters at the time of his hiring, “and I know how things will play out in the media.”

Burke may know what journalists wants, but his hiring and the pontiff’s Twitter following has not resulted in more Catholic around the world. It hasn’t helped in rectifying the shortage in the number of priests in the West. There’s definitely more the Church can do to make its voice heard in the social media age.

Like many of my generation, I grew up in the early ‘80s watching Davey and Goliath re-runs every Sunday morning. The animated series was aimed at children and dealt with sin in our everyday lives. The series, produced by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, possessed a universal Christian message. The series was one many Catholics grew up watching at home and in parochial schools across the country. My Sunday morning TV viewing later evolved to watching preachers like Stanley and Schuller, men who possessed an ability to communicate that appealed to me and millions of people across the country.  

All Christians have come a long way since the days of Davey and Goliath. My limited childhood choices have blossomed to include TV stations devoted to the faith and websites not afraid to proclaim it. It’s an alternative worth the time and attention of believers everywhere. People finally have more choices. Take advantage of them this Lenten season.