In 2006, Julie Vieira was getting ready to take her vows to become a nun. As she browsed the web, it became clear to her that nuns had an image problem on the Internet.
“The pictures of nuns that popped up in searches were mostly of women in erotic nun outfits or ugly cartoons,” she says, over the phone. “Those of us who have devoted our lives to this vocation didn’t have a voice on the Internet; we were not representing ourselves.”
So, in response, Sister Vieira and her friend Sister Maxine Kollasch used a classic SEO strategy to combat the problem: She created a blog called A Nun’s Life and a slew of corresponding social media accounts that would pop up at the top of web search results for the word “nun.”
Eight years on, Sister Vieira has a thriving online presence. Her blog has blossomed into a full-blown website, complete with a forum, a feature that allows people to ask nuns questions, a gift shop with inexpensive A Nun’s Life-branded products (a $4 mug, a $1 pen), and a popular podcast series. The site’s goal is no longer just to shape the way nuns are represented in the media, but about engaging with people in the digital realm. “Our goal has always been to meet people where they are,” she says. “Today, that’s the Internet.”
In the process of building her platform, Sister Vieria has had to fight her share of trolls. Her chatrooms, message boards, and comments sections are regularly hijacked by Internet users dropping profanity, expressing their anger, or being otherwise inappropriate. Harassment against women on the Internet is fairly common–Jezebel recently denounced trolls for leaving horrific rape images in the comments section and Cambridge professor Mary Beard was profiled in The New Yorker for tackling trolls head on–but these nuns have a radically different response to the problem.
“Trolls are people who are clearly disturbed and unhappy,” Vieria says. “On the one hand, we want to protect people on the website, but on the other, we see an opportunity to reach out to these troubled human beings.” It’s a delicate balance: Sometimes, the nuns have to delete comments so they don’t harm others on the site, but at other times, they respond kindly. This has been productive. Several trolls have come forward to apologize for their behavior and explain where their anger is coming from, leaving room for a redemptive conversation.
Sister Vieira is part of a movement sweeping the Catholic world: monks, nuns, everyday people of faith, and, most famously, the Pope himself, are embracing digital media. They are also thoughtfully helping people navigate its darker side. Pope Francis recently said that the Internet is a gift from God–he does, after all have 14 million Twitter followers across nine accounts and languages–but in his next breath, he issued a warning about how it can substitute for more fulfilling human contact.
When I ask Catholics about their hip, tech-savvy Pope, they’re quick to point out that the church has always been up to date with the latest technology trends. “We were all over the printing press when it first came out,” Lisa Hendey, a Catholic writer, tells me with a laugh. Six centuries after monks became early adopters of moveable type, Catholic institutions continue to show keen interest in the workings of the modern media. In 1963, the Vatican issued a decree that specifically addressed all forms of social communication (called the Inter Mirifica in Latin) which encouraged Catholics to take advantage of these emerging tools for the good of mankind.
From the earliest days of TV and audio recording technology, sermons were taped so they could be disseminated far beyond the pews on Sunday. This willingness to embrace technology to build community appears to be paying dividends. According to the Vatican’s Statistical Yearbook of the Church, the number of Catholics around the world is 1.2 billion and has been steadily growing at an annual rate of about 1% or 14 million people in recent years. In America, the number of self-identified Catholics has risen from 45.6 million in 1965 to 66 million in 2012.
Helen Osman, secretary of communication at the U.S. Convention of Catholic Bishops, tells me that the Catholic Church is actively contemplating the Internet’s opportunities and pitfalls. Her office issues social media best practices to help clergy, particularly of the older generation, use social media to minister to their flock. As a result, many bishops are active on Facebook and Twitter, sharing pictures of their everyday work and social justice efforts; their presence is nudging older Catholics online to be part of the community. Bishop Christopher Coyne of Indiana shares B.B. King songs on Facebook alongside pictures of Saint Cyprian. Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City has a monthly video chat with Catholic high school students across Utah, where he answers their difficult questions.
Of course, younger members of the clergy don’t need to be schooled on social media. Michael Rossmann, a Jesuit monk in training, was the 2007 valedictorian of the University of Notre Dame. He’s every bit the Jesuit scholastic, but he is also a digital native, perfectly at ease on social media and the blogosphere. He’s about to take over as editor-in-chief of The Jesuit Post, a web publication where monks write about the issues of the day with a religious twist, with topics ranging from Stanley Kubrick’s movies to community activism to LeBron James’s decision to return to Cleveland. Rossmann wants to offer Millennials a space to think critically about their presence in the digital world. “We want to show our peers that there is an active God at work in the world–and that includes the Internet,” he says.
Catholics are also thinking about how the youngest among them can learn to navigate the virtual world. On CatholicMom.com, a blog network founded by Lisa Hendey in 2000, mothers contemplate how to nurture their children to be responsible citizens of the digital world. “Early on we used to think that parents can control every bit of content that came into their child’s life, but we’re learning over time that’s not possible,” Hendey says. “We think about how to help children form a conscience, so that they can make positive, upright, and uplifting choices online.” In the United States, the Catholics and the Greek Orthodox have collaborated to provide an online resource called Faith and Safety that helps parents guide their children through the web. “Children need to learn how to interact online in a way that is kind and generous and true to the human spirit,” says Helen Osman.
The Catholic Church is by no means the only religious group thinking about how to modernize. In fact, several Catholics I spoke with mentioned that protestant denominations often did a better job of connecting with people on the Internet, particularly at megachurches like New Spring and Mars Hill. Reform Jews, meanwhile, have a slew of online resources ranging from guides to religious practice on ReformJudaism.com to slick web magazines like Tablet.
There is also widely believed that Mormons are leaps and bounds ahead of every other religious community in the technological sphere. For instance, Mormon digital outreach strategies were so sophisticated in the mid 2000s that the Church specifically planted players in the hugely popular virtual reality role-playing game Second Life to proselytize to other players. Missionaries would sometimes follow up with players in real life to hand them copies of the Book of Mormon.
With blogging nuns and tweeting bishops, Catholics are not to be outdone and are jumping into the digital world with zest. And the Church is arguably having a greater impact on social media than many other religious groups. According to this year’s Twiplomacy survey, Pope Francis has more clout on Twitter than any other world leader since he is so widely retweeted. (His Spanish tweets are retweeted an average of 10,000 times, while his English tweets are retweeted around 6,400 times.)
But as the monks and the nuns I spoke with kept reminding me, sometimes, it’s what happens offline that really matters. As I say goodbye to Sister Vieira, I look at the time and realize that it’s only 9 in the morning; I quickly apologize for asking for an interview at such an early hour. “Oh, that’s okay. I’ve already been up for several hours just, you know, saving the world and such, as nuns do,” she says, with a self-deprecating laugh.
The funny thing is, I think to myself, part of that might be true.