With his long monk’s robe and well-worn sandals, Brother John Mary Ignatius doesn’t look like the mastermind behind a popular and rapidly growing Facebook page — one which has engaged more than 3,500 youth from across Europe and North America with witty videos, insightful comments and uncommonly authentic dialogue.
But the outgoing religious brother, who recently swung through Anchorage to speak during the Alaska Catholic Youth Conference, is part of an up-and-coming crop of Catholic evangelists who are figuring out how to navigate the ever-changing landscape of social networks.
Brother Ignatius spends most of his life at a priory in Belgium as a religious brother with the Community of St. John. Each week, however, he finds time to dive into the world of Facebook.
But unlike the Facebook presence of many organizations that are geared towards evangelism, Brother Ignatius’ page is truer to the original intent of the Facebook founders.
He doesn’t use the world’s most popular social network to merely make religious announcements and proclamations to the masses — a Facebook offense which popular Catholic blogger Matthew Warner recently described as “walking into somebody’s living room and then preaching to them the whole time. It’s kinda rude and most of all, it doesn’t work.”
Rather, Brother Ignatius utilizes Facebook the way most others do. He posts videos and photos, makes observations about everyday happenings and “messages” his “friends.”
That said, Brother Ignatius isn’t online to merely connect with people through endless random and all-too-often shallow interactions.
“My hope is to bring people some sense of joy and hope,” he told the Catholic Anchor last month. “In the end, my ultimate goal is to bring people to Jesus Christ — to have them be curious enough to find what animates me and what makes me put things like this on a Facebook page.”
“Beyond the photos and videos are the messages,” he explained. “The goal is to create dialogue and to message back in forth in a profound way and then to go beyond that. I often encourage people to go beyond the computer and pick up a phone and talk.”
So how does a monk go from uploading videos about polar bears or hiking in the mountains to engaging young people in matters of faith and the deeper meaning of life?
The key, he said, is authenticity — a point about social networks which Pope Benedict XVI raised in his message for the June 5 World Day of Communications.
“Believers who bear witness to their most profound convictions greatly help prevent the Web from becoming an instrument which depersonalizes people, attempts to manipulate them emotionally or allows those who are powerful to monopolize the opinions of others,” the pontiff wrote.
“On the contrary, believers encourage everyone to keep alive the eternal human questions which testify to our desire for transcendence and our longing for authentic forms of life, truly worthy of being lived,” he said.
This is what Brother Ignatius aims for.
Most of his Facebook friends are people he has encountered on the thousands of youth events and retreats he has either led or helped with in Europe and North America.
“They already know I’m a Christian, a Catholic,” Brother Ignatius explained. “But I also have a number of friends who are staunchly agnostic, and yet they are open to somebody who will give them a level of communication and dialogue that is open, authentic and searching for the truth.”
Dangers and opportunities
Pope Benedict XVI described social networks as “unprecedented opportunities,” which can address “the desire for meaning, truth and unity which remain the most profound aspirations of each human being.”
But there are dangers — like being less present to the people physically around us and becoming distracted in a world “other than the one in which we live,” the pope said.
Virtual contact, the Holy Father explained, “must not take the place of direct human contact” or turn into one-sided interactions and “self indulgence.”
These are all warnings that Brother Ignatius takes to heart.
“I got into Facebook for ministry,” the outdoorsman monk said. “I’m not a computer person, and I don’t like spending a lot of time on the computer. It is not pleasant for me.”
He added: “What is pleasant is when real contact happens and there is a real question asked where you can commit yourself to a dialogue that bears fruit.”
On occasion, Brother Ignatius might spend an hour hammering out an online conversation with a young person.
But he also encourages Facebook friends to not waste time online, and he’s willing to call people to account.
“If I see something unhealthy, such as the quantity of messages, or the content being superficial or depressive, I can address quickly and directly the problem and I do,” he said.
Another challenge is to ensure that online interactions aren’t one-sided monologues or arguments.
“When I send a message, I make sure there is an answer and a dialogue so it’s not just me stating my opinion and that’s it,” Brother Ignatius said.
At times, he challenges Facebook comments that he believes are wrong theologically and morally or harmful.
“If I see a photo or something that is a little inappropriate, I can address that,” he said. “They know I’m not a policeman, but I can address that and say, “Come on man, don’t put yourself out like that.”
And the online community often lends its support when he makes constructive comments.
“I think most people who interact with me on Facebook, realize that there is somebody there who is real, who is not going to lie or run them around,” Brother Ignatius said. “They know I’m going to say what I really think but that I will respect their position without sending them cowering.”
Reason for hope
Brother Ignatius said he experiences great hope amid his many interactions with young people, both online and in retreat settings.
Despite the fact that a growing number of teens are abandoning their religious upbringing — especially in Europe — Brother Ignatius finds that even hyper-secularized teens respond to the truth.
“They react to truth and they are not afraid to admit in front of everybody, that, ‘Yeah, what Brother just said makes sense,’” he said. “That for me is the hope. There is tons of hope.”
Printed with permission from the Catholic Anchor, newspaper for the Diocese of Anchorage, Alaska.