By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- An ocean away from family and friends, some U.S. seminarians at the Pontifical North American College in Rome are bridging the divide with online communities and digital means of communication such as Skype, instant messaging, Facebook, MySpace and more.
But while it may have begun as simple e-mails and Web log, or blog, entries meant to keep loved ones in touch, their notes from Rome to home have blossomed into a whole new way these students preparing for the priesthood can share their spiritual journey with the rest of the world.
"It's a great witness when we share our stories, our experiences in (the) seminary" that include "our hopes, our joys, our fears, our anxieties about" the journey toward the priesthood, said Johnny Burns, 27, of Milwaukee.
Burns, Jacob Bertrand of San Diego and Michael Bruno of Brooklyn, N.Y., took a break from their busy schedules as second-year theology students to speak with Catholic News Service about how some seminarians from today's so-called "Google generation" are helping other people find God and the church through the Internet.
"There's a lot of junk on the Internet and we have to fix it," said Bertrand, 23, who seems the savviest of the group with a blog, accounts on two social networking sites on the Web -- MySpace and Facebook -- and plans for broadcasting practice homilies on YouTube, a video-sharing Web site.
"We need to integrate ourselves into these online communities and in a sense baptize the way these things work," he said.
"Everyone's opinion gets expressed and published, but nobody's opinion necessarily has any truth to it," the California native said.-Well-formed Catholics and church leaders have a golden opportunity to move into the World Wide Web like any new mission territory and point people to the truth and to Christ, the seminarians said.
Bruno, 22, said one of the things he loves most about the networking power of Facebook is "I put down I am a Mets fan, that I follow Notre Dame football" as well as his favorite books and movies. Other young people may be drawn to his profile because they have a shared interest in the New York Mets baseball team or because they went to the same high school, but then they see that he is also a seminarian studying for the priesthood in Rome.
Very few people actually know a seminarian, and meeting one online and discovering he has many of the same interests as other young people can wipe away some preconceived notions about the kind of person who is drawn to a priestly or religious vocation, the three men said.
Being a presence in these online communities almost acts as a sort of accidental advertising for the Catholic Church.
On the one hand, some people may be drawn to vent their frustrations or anger about the church, but Burns said, "on the flip side it's also easier for a young man or young woman who's considering a vocation to the priestly or religious life to send a quick question or two or even enter into a relationship of counseling with a priest or a seminarian who can give some advice on the discernment process."
He said his answering questions and engaging people in reflection in these "electronic communities" have provided him with valuable opportunities to experience ministry work.
"We are ministering to these people in many ways, both in sharing our stories, in helping them along their way answering their questions, and providing them another avenue for their own personal faith exploration," the Milwaukee denizen said.
But while the three men see that they are helping people learn more about the church and Christ, they also see it helps strengthen their own love for God and priestly calling.
Bruno said often he is asked by curious online visitors what led to his decision to become a priest.
He tells them it wasn't something "abnormal like a lightning bolt coming down and throwing you on the floor" or a loud voice calling your name. The reasons, he said, were rooted in the people who raised, loved and taught him throughout life.
"The vocation to be a priest is one that is nourished first in the family, but also in all your relationships, your friends, teachers and parish priests," he said.
Bruno said relationships are crucial and are "the nourishment of one's vocation."
Now because of Facebook, instant messaging and Skype, he is able "to keep those relationships alive and vibrant" so that they continue to sustain him both as a person and as a future priest.
"So many people have the idea that the life of a priest is a lonely life, that it is without relationships. Well, that couldn't be farther from the truth," Bruno said.
On the one hand these young men are sent away from their families and friends to complete their studies and formation, but in the end, Bruno said, "we're also sent back to them to minister to them, to be a comfort, to be a guide, to be a priest to them."
All of them emphasized the aim of their online presence was not to point people to their site or to create a perfect or popular Christian community; it is to be a signpost of sorts to show people the way back to God and to a real physical community that involves human interaction, face to face.
Burns said online communities are "a helpful means of evangelization and can be a very successful tool for the church if, at the end of the day, it's bringing people to the sacraments and especially to the Mass."
"You cannot experience Jesus Christ on the Internet no matter what you do," Bertrand said; it has to be a "personal experience of Christ," and "they won't get that on the online community."
If you are actively discerning a vocation to the Priesthood, Diaconate, Consecrated Life, or Marriage and you are looking for information to help in your discernment, BE SURE TO CHECK the section at the bottom of the right sidebar for the "labels" on all posts. By clicking on one of these labels it will take you to a page with all posts containing that subject. You will also find many links for suggested reading near the bottom of the right sidebar. Best wishes and be assured of my daily prayers for your discernment.