Turkish women try to connect to Twitter at a cafe in Istanbul, Turkey, March 21. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission is trying to decide whether to formulate a new policy for governing access to the Internet. CNS photo/Courtesy Tolga Bozoglu, EPA

Cyberspace mined for next generation of religious

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  • April 17, 2016

When Sr. Mary Rowell was growing up, religious communities were everywhere. They ran schools, colleges, parish activities, hospitals and day care centres.

“When I was growing up, everyone knew Father This and Sister That because you went to school and you were taught by them or you were in the parish church regularly,” she said. “Our social life was our church life.”

Today, religious communities are smaller in number and there aren’t as many opportunities to meet young people the way they used to.

Rowell, the president of Canada’s National Association of Vocation and Formation Directors (NAVFD), said religious orders’ strategies have had to adapt to the times.

In recent years, members of the association have been shifting their attention to cyberspace to meet young people.

“Social media is now like a meeting point that wasn’t available to us before,” said Rowell. “Meeting places were kind of restricted to a particular room before and this gives us a global meeting place.”

Rowell said that NAVFD’s web site, vocations.ca, attracts more than 3,000 unique visitors every month. The web site acts as a main portal that connects users with religious communities across Canada, providing resources for the discernment process. It includes a wide range of vocations, including religious life, priesthood, consecrated single life and marriage.

“It’s about a culture of vocations online,” said Rowell. “A lot of young people aren’t even aware of the variety of vocations in the Church, a variety of vocations in life even, because they’re not exposed in the same way as my generation would have been.”

Rowell, who is also the vocation co-ordinator for the Congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph, said that two of the order’s three novices found the congregation through vocations.ca. She said many other congregations have gotten similar calls from young people after discovering their community on the web site, as well.

At the past few NAVFD conferences, social media and digital skills workshops have been a running theme. At this year’s conference, Sr. Veronica Dunne of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions is leading a workshop on social media strategies.

Because young people now turn to the Internet to have their questions answered, Dunne said religious communities must migrate their efforts onto the web as well.

Social media allows vocation and formation directors to be more creative in how they present their message to young people.

“As far as getting the message out, people look at the web more than a book or a newspaper, so to have our resources there is really important,” she said.

A part of Dunne’s presentation will look at ANunsLife.org as a case study to learn different social media strategies. The web site is run by a number of religious congregations in the United States. It produces blogs, podcasts and live chat events. It runs every major social media outlet, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Vine. It is celebrating more than 10 years in online ministry.

“It provides so many resources for people,” said Dunne. “If someone was considering religious life, they can go there and get a lot of information. They can make contact with persons who are living the life.”

Dunne said that ANunsLife.org and its online ministry is just one example of what is possible for Canada’s religious communities. The Internet is vast in resources and it can be overwhelming to learn everything all at once. For vocation and formation directors, Dunne said it is better to start with one or two media that will be impactful.

As provincial superior for the Winnipeg-based Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions, Dunne has already gotten the ball rolling for her congregation. The sisters partnered with a group of web development students in Winnipeg to revamp their web site and get them started on the big three: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

“I’ve been kind of monitoring them and I have a sense of each of their potentials,” said Dunne. “What I’m really hoping for in these workshops is... hearing back from the other people and sharing resources.”

This year’s NAVFD conference take places April 25 in Winnipeg. Visit vocations.ca.

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