LIFE&FAITH

Tweeting and the priesthood

Diocese of Charleston employs social media to reach potential candidates

cclick@thestate.com June 16, 2012 

Josh Joseph grew up in a sprawling, extended Roman Catholic family, was educated in Columbia parochial schools and knew from a young age that a church vocation might be in his future.

“Having the privilege of going to Catholic schools, always being involved in Catholic church, it was something I thought about,” said Joseph, who graduated from St. John Neumann Catholic School and Cardinal Newman.

But when it came time to decide about entering the priesthood, Joseph looked not only inward but outward, to the social media platforms that are so much a part of his media-savvy generation.

Joseph tapped into the Diocese of Charleston’s new and aggressive effort to identify young men willing to trade a secular career, marriage and the trappings of modern life for a life of sacrifice and service to Jesus Christ and the church.

The Rev. Jeffrey Kirby, the Diocese of Charleston’s vicar of vocations and the man charged with helping young men through the sometimes painful, sometimes joyous discernment process, is leading the four-year strategy..

Endorsed by South Carolina Bishop Robert Guglielmone to encourage and promote the call to ministry, the systematic strategy, laid out in a 64-page document, begins with old-fashioned legwork in Catholic schools and evolves into the latest social media.

It includes a website, www.charlestonvocations.com, as well as Facebook, Twitter, webcasts and other innovations to provide a window to the evolution of a priest.

“It was a real lifesaver for me,” said Joseph, who graduated from USC in 2011 and spent a semester at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga studying industrial organizational psychology while he wrestled with his decision to join the priesthood.

“It was always exciting to keep up with what the church is doing. I used it almost every day even when I was still discerning whether I should go to seminary.”

Adam Fisher, 21, of Greenville also employed the website as he began his discernment process, although he said he does not use social media such as Facebook.

Raised a Southern Baptist, he converted to the Roman Catholic church in junior high school. Now, Fisher who graduated from USC in May with a degree in philosophy and French, is committed to seven years of advanced study to become a priest in the Dominican Order.

“I think this generation is somehow a little more about joining for tradition and the obedience to the church,” Fisher said. “I’ll trust the church’s 2,000 years over my 20 years.”

Kirby sees hope in the millennial generation, who are more about “having the church change them,” to help ease the priest shortage, a shortage exacerbated by the priest sex abuse scandals of the last decade.

“If ever there is a rallying cry in the church, it is that we need priests, deacons and sisters,” Kirby said, not only in South Carolina but across the country. There are currently 155 priests in the state to minister to about 196,000 Roman Catholics, Kirby said.

Nationwide, the number of priests has plunged from 58,632 in 1965 to 39,466 in 2011, according to the Georgetown University-affiliated Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, or CARA.

Joseph and Fisher, along with Rhett Williams of Charleston, who converted to Catholicism while at Furman University and continued to nurture an inclination toward the priesthood through a stint in the Peace Corps, and Francisco Onate-Vargas, 25, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico, are the new faces of the Roman Catholic priesthood.

“In social media, we just try to bust things wide open,” said Williams, 27, who assists Kirby in the vocations office. That includes employing the latest matrix-style barcodes, known as QR, or Quick Response, codes.

A total of 12 young men are now under the nurture of the diocese and either studying, or preparing to study, for the parish priesthood at Holy Trinity in Dallas, Kirby said. Fisher will come under the Southeast Province of the Dominican Order and several other novitiates also will join separate religious orders, he noted.

“Testing the call” in seminary doesn’t always mean that all seekers will finally embrace the priestly life, which requires a vow of celibacy and a desire “to be the perfect imitation of Christ,” Joseph noted.

Ultimately, Williams said, “the church is looking for happy, healthy and holy men.”

“You do not live your own life,” Kirby said. “It’s a life of prayer and sacrifice. The whole process has to be marked by freedom.”

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