September 27, 2013 – Catholics and the Media

I’m multi-tasking again as I try to write this.  I’m also watching the Cardinals kick a little Cub booty and clinch their division title.  So if something doesn’t make sense, well, there wouldn’t really be any difference from other weeks, would there.  So let’s get typing.

I appreciate the nice comments I got on last week’s blog, although it pretty much wrote itself because of all the buzz around the interview with Pope Francis in America magazine.  There are still articles being written and commentary on social media about what Pope Francis said.  All of the different misinterpretations and uninformed opinions put a focus on what Fr. Gene mentioned in his homily last weekend.  Catholics need to be careful where they get their information, and they need to have the patience to sort through the “garbage.”  This week, then, I thought I would talk a little bit about the history of Catholic media in our country and where we are at now.

Catholic newspapers were originally launched in the United States for two important purposes. The first was to defend the Church from hostility and misunderstanding in an overwhelmingly Protestant and unsympathetic culture.  Subsequent waves of Catholic immigrants — from Germany, Italy, Ireland and Poland — were often greeted with suspicion or hostility.  In the early 20th century a publication called “The Menace,” for example, with a weekly circulation of 750,000, bitterly attacked Catholic immigrants for taking jobs from Americans while being beholden to a foreign power: Rome.

The second purpose was to help strengthen a sense of community and a bond with the Church among Catholics who were strangers in this strange land.  Catholic media provided information about the faith, news of the Church, and an outlet for Church leaders to speak directly to their people.

For most of our history, Catholic media was primarily in print form, with national and diocesan publications together printing millions of copies weekly. There were Catholic personalities on radio and television — most famously Bishop Fulton Sheen — but print was the primary form of Catholic communication.  I remember as a kid the two publications I was exposed to the most.  One was of course The Messenger, which remains our Diocesan newspaper.  I particularly enjoyed the “Hello, This is Bishop Cosgrove” column, and later on the “What I Have Seen and Heard” column by then Bishop Gregory, which talked about what they were experiencing as they traveled throughout the Diocese.  The other one was Our Sunday Visitor, which is also still in publication.  I remember there was a display case for this in the center vestibule with the little metal box to drop change in.  I also remember in 8th grade, when Fr. Kribs came for his weekly visit to our classroom, his explanation of why it was no longer cost effective to provide this paper (it was indeed a well-rounded education at ol’ SMS).

Of course our means of communications have progressed leaps and bounds in a relatively short amount of time, though print media still remains a key player.  According to the 2013 statistics of the Catholic Press Association, its members total 141 newspapers — national and diocesan — with a combined circulation of 5 million.  Seventy magazines had a total circulation of 3.8 million.  Other publications total an additional 1.2 million subscribers.  Catholic radio is experiencing significant growth in the United States, with 243 stations currently broadcasting and an average of two a month being added.  Dominant players in Catholic radio include EWTN, Ave Maria, Relevant Radio and Immaculate Heart Radio, among others.  The U.S. Catholic television presence is dominated by the Eternal Word Television Network, but there are diocesan inspired television ministries in Boston, Brooklyn and Trenton, among other places.

Of course, the area that has attracted a great deal of attention is the growth of Catholic digital efforts. There is an amazing diversity in Catholic resources on the web, including sites and blogs (woohoo!) sponsored by existing Catholic media companies, by other Catholic organizations such as universities and dioceses, or independent efforts such as New Advent or the Catholic portal on Patheos. There are huge numbers of Catholic blogs and Catholic-inspired or sponsored social media efforts.  Getting a solid count on the number of Catholic blogs is nearly impossible, but according to a recent survey, one in 20 self-identified Catholic adults (or 5 percent of the Catholic population, potentially the equivalent of 2.9 million people) reads or follows a blog about the Catholic Church, faith or spirituality (with approximately 5 of those reading “The Webmaster’s Blog”, LOL).

With the constantly changing formats of media, it was amazing to read the following from a report given at a recent conference at the Vatican:  “Surveys show that more older Catholics than younger are visiting Catholic websites and reading Catholic blogs, while among those younger Catholics seeking Catholic resources, they are more likely to read print bulletins and newspapers than visit parish or diocesan websites.  Half of all Catholics have no idea that the Church has any presence at all on the web.”  At first I wondered if this claim was really true.  However, the more I thought about it, the more I believe that this is probably the case.  Our website has existed for over six years, yet occasionally I still have someone come up to me and tell me that they had just discovered how much information our website contained.  Also, unfortunately, those who do not regularly attend church tend to get their information from secular news sources, which of course more often than not is misinformed.

I think as a parish and a church as a whole we have done a very good job in embracing the internet and social media.  We of course can always do more, particularly our Diocese of Belleville which is limited by lack of resources, etc.  However, perhaps we could do a better job in marketing our place in cyberspace.  This is an important part of the New Evangelization.  Of course, nothing takes the place of our personal encounters with Christ in our prayer, in our actions, in our attendance at church, etc.  But we have the means to go through other avenues, and we will continue to do our best to do so.

Well the Cardinals just clinched the division.  It’s a good night.  Bring on October!  Have a great week.  Peace.

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