EVERY MONDAY MORNING at about 8.30am, Father Luke Fong sits in front of his computer, logs onto Blogger.com, and publishes an entry for the week. He has been doing this diligently for the past 10 months since he first registered his blog titled “Reflections and Ruminations” (http://frlukefong.blogspot.com).
In his former parish of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), he wrote his reflections in the church bulletin, which parishioners had found formative in their spiritual life. When he was assigned to his current parish of Our Lady Star of the Sea, his former parishioners asked him to find some way to continue their spiritual formation from a distance. After some thought, he decided that blogging his reflections was the best way possible. Father Luke is one of several priests in Singapore who share the pope’s vision, as described in his message for the 44th World Communications Day, May 16, “to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources” including “images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites”.
These, “alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelisation, and catechesis”, the pope wrote.
A priest for nine years this June, Father Luke was led towards blogging at the encouragement of his replacement as IHM assistant priest, Father Aloysius Ong.
The latter’s blog “Life’s Crosses” (http://alongcorner.blogspot.com) has been around since June 2001. He was the first priest in Singapore to blog. His advice to Father Luke when asked about regularity and type of content was, “It’s really up to you”.
“I thought it would be difficult to do a blog, but with Blogger, it’s so easy,” said Father Luke, whose blog posts are always faith and God-related.
The topics come from his personal prayer and reflections on current affairs mostly drawn from newspapers or through encounters with parishioners.
“I take pains to explain my stand very clearly and not make sweeping statements,” said Father Luke. “Because this is a way to form people [spiritually], I include a bit of catechesis as well.”
To date there are nearly a hundred Blogger members who subscribe to “Reflections and Ruminations”, including people from Egypt, Australia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, U.S., and Singapore.
There is even a Californian reader who asked Father Luke about discernment to the priesthood.
Other readers leave comments that he considers for future topics, and when asked about personal problems, Father Luke doesn’t publish these, but he does try his best to respond to those who leave their contact.
Citing Father Ronald Rolheiser – who updates his blog every Tuesday morning (Singapore time) – as his “guru”, Father Luke said that, as with prayer, “you have to make time, not find time”, to blog consistently.
However, he cautioned that it isn’t wise to rely solely on blogging for outreach as “you can become a hermit and not encounter people”.
Father Luke expressed his pleasure at the pope’s encouragement of priests to use social media in their pastoral outreach.
“What encourages is the word coming out from Rome, and to know that the Vatican’s moving with the times. It’s also a sanction from higher up. So this is my contribution,” he said.
Fathers on Facebook
In his message, the pope said that it is necessary to involve the use of new communication technologies to respond adequately to the challenge of spreading the Word of God “amid today’s cultural shifts, to which young people are especially sensitive”.
It is for this reason that priests like Father Albert Ng began his odyssey with Facebook more than a year ago, when the youths he ministers to expressed a desire to connect with their priests through Facebook.
Despite his busy schedule as Church of the Holy Trinity assistant parish priest, Father Albert logs in to Facebook daily to write inspiring messages or “thoughts of the day” on his Facebook status page.
For example, on the eve of the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, May 1, he wrote: “People nowadays have plenty of things to do and are all stressed out. As for me, I discovered that there are only three things that are important – family, work, and God. Happy Workers’ Day to all!”
Father Albert, aged 55, has over 260 Facebook friends, some of whom would respond by flagging those posts of his that they like, or commenting on them, to which he would respond or engage in discussion.
Leonard Neo, one of Father Albert’s Facebook friends, said that popular social networking website provides an informal platform for communication between priests and lay people both young and old.
“It is an important platform to bridge the gap between priests and the congregation,” said Leonard, who added that youths probably pay more attention to Facebook than parish bulletins or notice boards.
“When a priest is able to bring himself to do things that the youths and adults too are doing, people reciprocate better and ideas, suggestions, words get through much easier and more effectively,” said the Holy Trinity youth parishioner.
While Father Albert engages the youth and other parishioners over Facebook, he still believes in spending quality time with a person in order to really make a difference in the other’s life.
“It’s the years of formation that really counts,” he said, but added that he would like to try his hand at involving the youths in creating inspiring videos and making them available on YouTube or GodTube.
Uploading a video to YouTube, a video-sharing website, might seem complicated to the uninitiated, but as Father Jose Lopez found out through an experiment, the results can be quite “amazing”.
Once, he transferred a PowerPoint presentation of a talk to video “just in order to learn how it works”, only to find it automatically uploaded onto YouTube.
“It is surprising to see that 1,000 people have watched this ‘experiment’!” he shared excitedly. Ever since then, he has been putting up “more and more files of talks and doctrine classes on the Internet”.
As a result, people from different parts of the world have been “asking questions about doctrinal points raised, or asking for more presentations”, he said.
“This is the beautiful thing about the Internet,” said the Opus Dei priest. “[It] makes communication faster and easier in a globalised world. In the past, in order to bring across the message of Christ and His Church you need to travel, like St. Paul and St. Francis Xavier. Now, you can do more through all possible means available on the Internet.”
“I guess things would have been easier to my fellow countryman Francis Xavier, if he could have [put the computer] to good [use],” joked the Spanish priest.
On a serious note, however, he said that prayer and the sacraments through which the “fire of love for Jesus Christ” comes will always be relevant and necessary since “God does not have a mobile phone”.
“We do not need special gadgets to be able to communicate with Him,” said Father Lopez.
The humble email
Pope Benedict XVI’s message noted that “priests present in the world of digital communications should be less notable for their media savvy than for their priestly heart, their closeness to Christ” as this “will not only enliven their pastoral outreach, but will also give a ‘soul’ to the fabric of communications that makes up the ‘Web’”.
Indeed Father Paul Staes, CICM is not noted for his media savvy though he exercises this towards his cause of social mission. He uses a Macintosh that is several years old, but he does not pooh-pooh the decades-old electronic mail.
The 73-year-old Scheut Missions priest is a “first-generation” user of Veritas, the archdiocesan website and network set up by volunteers under Father John-Paul Tan, OFM and Father Johnson Fernandez. Veritas has since evolved into Catholic.sg and is maintained by a full-time church worker.
But back in 1997, Father Staes set up the CICM website with the help of a volunteer.
Till today, the semi-retired priest uses the email extensively to “broadcast messages, opinions, articles”, especially on the Church in China, to his mailing list of over 700 people. He is also a regular contributor to the Straits Times forum on social mission issues such as the condition of migrant workers, respect for human life, and societal values.
Chief among his reasons for valuing digital communications to reach out to more people is that it is “cheap, or free, and always fast”.
ow Church of St. Mary of the Angels parish priest Franciscan Father John-Paul is of the opinion that digital communications, though helpful in pastoral ministry, cannot replace interpersonal communication.
“Using these instruments of communication judiciously can add reach and help with day-to-day administration... to help us remain connected and to send out information more effectively...[but] our primary role as pastors must still be towards the care and formation of people entrusted to us.”
Father John-Paul, a priest of 20 years this August, maintains that digital communications tools must remain that – tools, “to serve the community rather than we become slaves to it”.
He questions whether humans are masters, or have become slaves, of our own inventions. The danger is that more people are allowing themselves to be distracted by such gadgets during times of “one-to-one communication, family dinners, group meetings, and even Mass”.
The Word of God on websites
The pope’s message for World Communications Day coincides with the Year For Priests. As such, it “focuses attention on the important and sensitive pastoral area of digital communications, in which priests can discover new possibilities for carrying out their ministry to and for the Word of God”.
One such priest is Father William Goh, who has written and preached “a few thousand” homilies at churches and at the seminary. As many have shared that they have been inspired by them, the rector of St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary has felt an urge to post his homilies online. The revamped Catholic Spirituality Centre (CSC) website where Father William is the spiritual director offered him an avenue to do so.
Besides this, he also maintains a Daily Scripture Reflections on the same website “to help the people of God understand the Word, and to encourage them to ponder how God is present in their day-to-day thoughts and activities”.
Father Goh revealed that many, from as far away as the U.S., France, and Russia, have written in to say that they have been helped by these reflections.
These activities required a high level of commitment, he noted, but because he finds it meaningful, he makes time for it “regardless of how packed my day may be”.
He added that “positive words of encouragement from many visitors to the website keep me going [especially] when the pros of such efforts weigh heavily against the cons”.
He is not the only priest to post his homilies online. Other priests such as Father Stephen Yim, and Father Philip Heng, SJ have also made efforts to share their homilies to as many people as possible via the Internet.
The priest and pastoral ministry in a digital world
As rector, Father William is to form priests to serve tomorrow’s Church. In Aug 2009, together with Dean of Studies Father Kenson Koh, they brought the seminarians to the Singapore Press Holdings in to expose the latter to the social sphere and for intellectual formation where they learnt how journalists work to provide print and digital content.
“In a world where negative forces are aggressively challenging traditional values and protocols, it is incumbent on the Church, as the bastion for Truth, to not just harness, but to be at the forefront in the use of modern technology to provide an alternative voice for the world,” said Father William.
Father William acknowledged that “just as the early Christian Disciples left their comfort zones to spread the Good News in uncharted territory, the pagan world, so too, it behoves the Church today to go beyond the church pulpit and exploit modern communication approaches to evangelise the world”.
He urges people to look beyond the evils of technology – such as easy access to illicit material and negative moral influences that some content have on people – and recognise that in a generation of people accustomed to instant gratification, time is always of the essence where one has to be fast and “first on the scene”in order to be heard, influence and make a difference.
“In a generation spoilt for choice, you need to be louder, more creative, more impactful to be heard. Subtlety gets you nowhere. Technology enables you to be in the game, and to reach out to an audience beyond your immediate vicinity. It instantaneously puts you on a world stage, to influence world views, with just the click of a button.”