Applying new technology to the 2,000-year-old message of the Catholic faith

Witchita, USA - One of the world’s most traditional institutions is making notable use of new media tools.

The Diocese of Wichita, that serves 117,000 Catholics in 25 Kansas counties, has a large and rapidly expanding digital footprint.

With more than 40 videos created and posted on YouTube in the past six months, more than 2,000 followers on Facebook, and efforts to experiment with other forms of new media, the Diocese is becoming something of a role model for other religious bodies.

In just the past year the diocese working with a local firm, Solutio, has launched its redesigned website, and connected YouTube, Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The local Catholic Advance newspaper, more than a century old and distributed twice monthly in print, is now available in a digital edition that can be more regularly updated.

Two of the diocese communication leaders, Amy Pavlacka and Christopher Riggs, recently spoke with Wichita State University communication students about these changes. Pavlacka has been director of communications for five years; Riggs has been editor of the Catholic Advance for 22 years.

They see the use of website and other new media as “living, breathing, changing tools of communication,” Pavlacka said.

She said new media use represents a natural evolution of the mission outlined by their bishop, Michael Jackels, to unite the far-flung diocese. “Bishop Jackels wants all of the Catholics in this 25-county area to feel connected to him, to each other and to the church,” she said.

Much of the change has resulted from experimentation, rather than long-term strategy. For example, Riggs shot his first video about five years ago only when he realized his digital camera was capable of producing video as well as still photos.

New media discussions are underway globally in the Catholic Church.

You can visit the Vatican’s Pope2You website or read Pope Benedict XVI’s message, “Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age.” The January 2011 message acknowledges the potential and ubiquity of new media, while warning against its power to take over lives.

“When people exchange information,” the message says, “they are already sharing themselves, their view of the world, their hopes, their ideals. It follows that there exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world: this takes the form of a communication, which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others.”

What’s next for the Wichita diocese in new media, beyond continuing to develop the tools already in place? Here’s some of what they’re working on:

• An app for smartphones and tablets that will allow easy screen access to a popular website feature called Daily Reflections.

• Video to support a campaign to renovate the downtown cathedral that serves the diocese and to document the construction.

• Embedded video with stories on the digital Catholic Advance.

• Better promotion, especially in the diocese’s 37 schools, of the new media tools already available and better use of the Twitter and Facebook accounts to support diocese activities.

• More live streaming of events, such as diocese press conferences and special masses.

With all of these new media activities, it’s easy to believe there’s a large staff and budget to support them, but that’s not the case.

The communications staff, including Pavlacka and Riggs, has developed new skills and found ways to utilize free platforms such as YouTube and Facebook to get their message out.

They also feel blessed – that’s a word used a lot in the diocese – to have access to Bishop Jackels, Vicar General Robert Hemberger and other priests who are highly experienced communicators.

As Riggs said, with a smile, “Priests are wonderful subjects for video because they rehearse every Sunday.”