Meet Don Alberto, Italy’s new YouTube sensation

TOP_MG_8696.jpg Fr. Alberto Ravagnani. Courtesy photo.

Fr. Alberto Ravagnani didn't set out to make a viral video. He was just trying to find a way to stay connected to the kids who attend his parish's youth ministries after Italy went into lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

The 27-year-old priest had never edited a video before and he rarely posted on social media.

"It was an experiment. I wanted to make something nice and useful to fill these two weeks -- what I thought the time of closure would be -- but the closure was extended," Ravagnani told CNA in an interview.

The priest's first YouTube video, uploaded on March 14, 2020, and titled "Praying in the time of coronavirus," quickly rose in views as it was shared across social media and messaging apps.

His second, about how "10 minutes of silence can change your day," was uploaded the following day and has been viewed more than 50,000 times.

Seeing that the videos were reaching people, he decided to continue.

"I didn't expect all of this. Also because it wasn't the objective, I wasn't trying to get a lot of views," he explained.

But when it happened, the priest said that he realized it could be a way to communicate with young people in a creative way -- and he had fun making them.

All of Ravagnani's videos -- to date 46 -- have gained tens of thousands of views (several have hundreds of thousands). They touch on topics as diverse as the existence of God, video games, happiness, and why to pray the rosary

In the videos, Don Alberto (as he's known in Italy) speaks quickly and has an engaging energy, which is coupled with fast-paced editing. And he does not deploy euphemisms, using language familiar to today's adolescents and teens in each of his frenetic videos.

For example, a seven-minute video on pornography, uploaded to YouTube in October 2020, is his most-watched, with more than 396,000 views.

"In fact, with the passing of time, I realized that it had opened a path, social media too, to speak about the Gospel, and to reach many people. Many people who, probably, in our usual activities, we don't encounter," Ravagnani said. 

Success on YouTube propelled the new priest to Italian stardom, with profiles in major Catholic and secular newspapers and, most recently, an interview spot on the newest talk show on the state-owned television Rai.

Ravagnani, ordained in 2018, is assigned to the Parish of St. Michael the Archangel in Busto Arsizio, a town of around 83,000 people just north of Milan. He is responsible for the parish's large youth oratory, where he also lives. There he works with around a hundred youth from elementary through high school.

Speaking about his vocation as a priest, he told CNA: "In the midst of my faults, my limitations, my weaknesses, I know that where the Lord has planted me, I can bring forth fruit. Already I have seen some fruit. And I realize my life is for doing this."

"Now I feel very happy, really, because I have found my place in the world," he said.

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But he did not always feel that way. Explaining that he did not grow up in a particularly devout Catholic family, Ravagnani said he was taught the faith in catechism classes, in his parish, and in youth group.

When he was in middle school, he became a catechism leader for younger kids, getting to play games with them and lead them in activities.

"This I liked a lot. I felt really fulfilled," he said, "because I had the opportunity to do good for others through my talents, my abilities."

But starting in high school, he "didn't feel completely happy. There was something wrong."

Everything changed for him when he was 17 years old and went on a week-long camping trip in the mountains, organized by his parish.

Ravagnani said: "There I am sure I had an experience of God that I had never had before in my life. And I felt really loved by God, and it changed me."

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"At that point, I met God. I began to pray, because before I didn't have a particularly strong belief. And I decided to enter the seminary."

Asked about the risks of internet fame for a Catholic priest, Ravagnani said that the temptation to make yourself the center of attention, or to craft a cult of personality, exists as much in the pulpit as on Facebook. 

"There are -- and I know some -- priests who really feel like they are 'stars,'" Ravagnani noted. But he thinks this stems from a misunderstanding of the priest's role as a servant of his people.

Flash forward three years into his priesthood, and Ravagnani has 130,000 followers on Instagram and more than 89,000 fans on TikTok. In February, he opened a "room" on Clubhouse where he gives a 25-minute reflection on the Gospel of the day, leaving space for questions from those who join.

He said that his YouTube videos would continue but at a slower pace as he starts yet another new project, one he is really excited about: a show on the live-streaming platform Twitch.

Ravagnani directs and hosts the hour-long episodes of "Doncast," which he creates with help from around 20 teens.

In just the first three episodes, the priest has interviewed 16-year-old Federico Gardenghi, who at the age of 12 had already made waves as "the youngest DJ in the world"; Pietro Morello, a 21-year-old pianist who went viral on TikTok in 2020 and has a passion for missionary work; and Federico Patuzzi and his sister Susanna (who has Down syndrome), who have shot to Instagram and TikTok stardom with videos about their relationship as siblings.

After the interviews are streamed, they are also posted to YouTube.

"I guard myself [from the temptations] through the spiritual life and through friends," Ravagnani said. "In the sense that I try to have people around me who love me, who want what's good for me, and who keep my feet on the ground."

On social media, he presents a certain character, he said, but he also lives in a community of people who interact with him every day, and know him and his faults like family members.

The young priest acknowledged that there are obvious limitations to social media.

"Social media platforms, as virtual spaces, miss the actual dimension of relationship: the here and now," he said. "This is a structural limitation, but social media should not substitute the physical relationship, it should support it."

"Certainly, it's clear that there are risks, there are limits, but I think it's wrong ... to put the risks at the fore and the opportunities in the last place," he said.

Ravagnani is taking the opportunities and running with them.

"All of this is unpredictable. I never expected it, but the mercy, the providence of God is real," he said.

And though he himself has embraced the virtual world of the internet, he had some different advice for teens and young adults, saying that "we can discover our vocation the more we throw ourselves into reality." 

"The more we are attentive to what happens, to the people around us, the more we can hear God's voice calling us," he said.