Preaching is usually thought of as something that happens during a 10-minute homily on Sunday, but some young priests and seminarians are beginning to rethink what that looks like, using modern media to take the message of the Gospel outside of church walls.

A Call to Action

Shortly after the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report in August 2018, Father Cassidy Stinson and Deacon Anthony Ferguson, who were then both seminarians for the Diocese of Richmond studying at Theological College in Washington, decided that they wanted to do something positive to help the Church amid the negativity they felt surrounded by.

Around that same time, they had read an article by Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron that calls for “a serious investment in social media and the formation of an army of young priests specifically educated and equipped to evangelize the culture through these means.”

They began to wonder how this type of training could be incorporated into the seminary, because they had not experienced anything like that. They decided to take action and do something to help fill that void.

This past school year, Deacon Ferguson and Father Stinson, who was recently ordained to the priesthood on June 1 at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Richmond, launched the Alberione Project at Theological College, which is named after Blessed James Alberione. He founded the Pauline family, which includes 10 religious institutes, each with the goal of sanctifying the modern means of communication in different ways.

The main goal of the Alberione Project is to form seminarians in using media as a part of their ministry, which includes both spiritual formation and practical training. The two seminarians decided that just as they have different assignments where they practice their ministerial skills in seminary, they needed an apostolate where the seminarians could practice their media skills. To do so, they decided to create a podcast that seminarians could work together to produce, which they titled “The Big Tree,” the rough English translation of “Alberione.”

Podcasting is a rapidly growing medium, with 14 million more people listening to podcasts weekly in the past year alone, according to 2019 data by the Infinite Dial. This makes it a good place to reach people who may not normally enter a church.

“As pastors, if we take seriously the idea that we are responsible for the souls of everyone in our parishes, then we have to figure out a way to reach these people,” said Father Stinson. “And in many cases, these people are not going to come to our parish ministries or to Mass or to whatever programs we are putting on. We have to figure out how to reach them.“

The weekly podcast has a rotating set of seminarian hosts, and also has many seminarians who help out on the back end, including the prep team that reaches out to potential guests and the production team that processes and edits the audio after the interviews are done.

Often, their guests are professors at The Catholic University of America, speaking on topics such as the theology of blessings or Catholic social teaching, but they have also had guests who come from farther away, such as Bishop Richard Umbers, an auxiliary bishop of Sydney, Australia, who has an active Twitter account titled “Bishop Down Umber,” with many followers around the world.

In addition to producing this podcast, the Alberione Project has hosted guest speakers to talk to the seminarians about media ministry, such as the Daughters of St. Paul, who are also known as the “media nuns,” and Leah Murphy, the coordinator of digital evangelization and outreach for Life Teen.

Deacon Ferguson and Father Stinson said they hope this training will give the seminarians a good vision of media ministry, so wherever they end up, they can take stock of the needs of their parish and the tools they have available, and either start a media ministry themselves or empower parishioners to do so.

“One of the biggest jobs of the pastor – it is not doing everything himself – it is bringing out the gifts of other people. And for some people, their charism really is to evangelize through media and through different forms of communication, especially if they do that professionally, but not even just professionally,” said Father Stinson. “Almost everyone has social media right now. So the idea that somebody could share their faith through that, that could be really powerful on a parish level.”

(Photo courtesy of the Alberione Project)

Podcasting priests in action

Several priests in the Archdiocese of Washington are already living out this call to evangelize through media. Father Conrad Murphy, Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s priest secretary; Father Alec Scott, the parochial vicar at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Washington; and Father Chris Seith, a doctoral student at The Catholic University of America studying moral theology, co-host a podcast called “Catholic Bytes,” where they discuss different topics about the faith.

The podcast began while they were seminarians in Rome, and has taken a few different forms before reaching its current model, which usually involves the three of them having a casual conversation about something faith-related.

“We have these really interesting nerdy conversations about faith when we are hanging out,” said Father Murphy, who added that one day they had the idea that “we should just record those conversations.”

Some of the priests’ favorite episodes tie faith into popular culture, such as one episode about Tina Turner’s song “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” Some of their other episodes include information about different popes or recommendations for their favorite Catholic novels.

When asked what advice he has for others who are thinking about producing a podcast, Father Murphy said, “if you embrace it and are authentic and joyful in it, then people are going to get something from it.”

“So many times we think we need to put on a façade,” he said. “The most convincing thing is when you love the Lord and you are comfortable with yourself. That can draw people in....The Lord makes us more ourselves the more we grow in love with Him.”

Father Scott noted that “more than anything, this was born out of our friendship.”

“What I really love about it is it gives me an opportunity to talk about holy things with my friends,” he said. “…I learn a lot from the others, everyone has a different area of expertise.”

Father Murphy believes podcasting is an effective method of evangelizing, because it is important to speak to people ”in a mode they are ready to receive,” he said, adding that it provides an avenue for “quick but substantial things for people to grow in their faith.”

Father Scott said the goal of their podcast is “to impart our passion and love for the faith.”

“When people can hear the passion and excitement…I think it gives a liveliness to the faith that is hard to find in other environments,” he said.

Father Conrad Murphy, at left, priest secretary for Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory; Father Chris Seith, at center, a doctoral student at The Catholic University of America studying moral theology; and Father Alec Scott, at right, the parochial vicar at the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Washington, prepare to record en episode of the “Catholic Bytes” podcast.

Media rooted in prayer

Deacon Ferguson and Father Cassidy said prior to starting the Alberione Project, they had heard many negative messages about media in the seminary, saying that it is a distraction to ministry or something to overcome. At the same time, they had read the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Media of Social Communications, Inter Mirifica, which said using the media of social communications is “intimately linked with [the priest’s] ordinary preaching responsibility.”

The seminarians felt the two different messages about modern forms of media didn’t match up.

“Yes, they can be distracting. Yes, there is an immense power to them. They can be used for evil and they can be used for distraction. You are completely overwhelmed by it, and it is inundating our society in many ways. It shapes the way we think,” said Deacon Ferguson. “On the other hand, if they are so powerful, then they can be used for good and used to be able to proclaim Christ. I wish we could hear more of that. That was one of the dreams and visions of this: let’s provide another voice. All these tools are in our pocket 24/7; how do we use them for the Lord?”

Father Seith is very cognizant of whether the Catholic Bytes podcast is contributing something positive to conversations about faith, rather than creating meaningless noise, especially since he is writing his dissertation about online distractions. His main argument is that only someone to whom God is present in contemplative joy is able to use devices that connect to the Internet without becoming enslaved by them.

“There is so much noise that we are surrounded by and immersed in, and so my prayer for the podcast would be actually that it inspires people to stop listening to the podcast and listen more to voice of Christ in their heart for their relationship with Him,” said Father Seith. “…Our goal is not to have more followers. It is to have Jesus have more followers.”

Likewise, Deacon Ferguson said when priests view media as a part of their preaching responsibility, “it is not about getting the likes. It is not about building the ego. It is not about building my personal influence. It is about preaching.”

One of his dreams for how a pastor could use media would be to allow him to share his messages more broadly, in the hopes that it would encourage parishioners to come talk to him about it after listening.

“We are not saying to go to the media to stay on the media. The media points to communion and the media leads back to the sacraments, communion, the Body of Christ, lived in community, proclaiming it,” he said. “Real life relationships, that is what it all comes to. The media is a gift in order to reach those real life human beings. We have to remember that.”

Since they launched the Alberione Project, seminarians who do not have personal social media accounts have gotten involved, which Deacon Ferguson said provides them the opportunity to learn about it without having to do something they don’t want to do – such as have a social media account or a podcast of their own. He emphasized that “not everyone has to be Bishop Barron,” who has a large media presence.

“If it is going to harm your soul; if it is going to put you in an occasion of sin to have social media, then don’t do it. It’s not worth it. Your soul is worth too much,” he said, adding, “but for that reason, the field of media should not be abandoned.”

Likewise, Deacon Ferguson noted that priests should encourage their parishioners to use social media in a positive way, praying about how their posts will impact others. As a part of the Alberione Project, the seminarians planned a prayer vigil to pray for the media and for those who are involved in parts of media that can be harmful.

“Any kind of real initiative in your faith, including the media, to be an authentic expression of our lives as Christians, has to be rooted in the sacraments, has to be rooted in the core of our faith,” said Father Stinson. “And so for us, without a solid prayer life, this whole thing would just be pointless. It can’t just be about the mechanics; it can’t just be about the details and the likes and the algorithms. It has to be about Jesus Christ present in the sacraments.“

During Morning Prayer on Blessed James Alberione’s feast day, then-Deacon Cassidy Stinson blessed the brand new podcast equipment. (Photo courtesy of the Alberione Project)