Catholics on Instagram: A Church established over 2000 years ago is represented in the digital age

It’s 7:50 in the morning when I step into the Basilica of St. Adalbert. I settle into a pew behind the elderly regulars who frequent daily mass with me. Knees pressing into the cushioned kneeler and resting my elbows on the top of the pew’s wooden back, I stare at the large white crucifix behind the altar. On either side, statues of Mary and angels gaze upon Jesus on the cross. Windows line the walls, portraying the life of Jesus and the saints through stained glass. The truth, beauty, and goodness encountered here invites an internal transformation of heart and mind.

Yet, on my computer hours later, photographs and videos on Instagram hold my attention. They highlight scripture, the Catholic Church, and prayer reflections. The truth they speak is intriguing. The images they post are vibrant. Catholics occupy a corner of the internet to share Jesus Christ and His Church that has been established for almost 2000 years.

The Catholic Church has been around for thousands of years and their teachings, traditions, and message has gone unchanged. The message and mission is to share Jesus Christ with the world. With the mission of evangelization, Catholics have realized the necessity of meeting people where they are at to preach the Good News. Now, this seems to include Instagram. A message from Pope Francis during the 48th World Communications Day in 2014 urged Catholics to join in.

“Let us boldly become citizens of the digital world…The revolution taking place in communications media and in information technologies represents a great and thrilling challenge; may we respond to that challenge with fresh energy and imagination as we seek to share with others the beauty of God.”

Catholics on Instagram hope their platforms can be the catalyst or supplement to in-person encounters with Jesus Christ. Yet, even Catholic content on social media should be consumed in moderation mentioned Pope St. John Paul II in the apostolic letter The Rapid Development.

According to Statistica, Instagram saw a 49.5 percent increase in usage by adults in the United States in March. With everyone forced to stay inside, it was no question that people were drawn to digital connection.

When churches were forced to lock their doors during quarantine back in March, Fr. Rob Mulderink, a priest at the Basilica of St. Adalbert, knew he had to get on the internet.

“It was sort of a matter of necessity,” Mulderink said. “​There’s no place that the Gospel can’t go, there’s no place where Jesus is excluded and so if Instagram’s available then the Gospel’s gotta be there.”

Mulderink’s Instagram account @father.rob.m features short video clips on reflections of the Mass daily readings, written reflections paired with quotes, and repeated content for his Spanish speaking followers. Mulderink researched hashtags to break into Instagram’s algorithms and connect with people who were interested in meditation and spiritual wellness in an effort to pop up on feeds that would normally not have a priest. But his audience pertains specifically to those in his parish, high school students from where he is a chaplain, or people following Catholic accounts.

Catholicism is subject to the popular perception that its online presence is lackluster. Mulderink hopes to dispel stereotypes that priests on social media are boring. While his most popular video gaining over 2,000 views, Cold Hearted, relates to the COVID-19 shut down and feeling empty, some of his videos are posted for fun.

The hope is that this evangelization through social media is not just for Catholics to follow Catholics, but for everyone to get a glimpse of the Church’s beauty.

Grant Whitty, a missionary with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), has an Instagram byline which reads “documenting the Church via photograph.” His photography background and sacrificing success in the ski industry to be a missionary has provided an opportunity to show people what happens inside the walls of the Church through Instagram @grantwhitty, reaching people who otherwise might not experience it.

“People don’t actually have a true and honest look at the Church. They have a lot of misconceptions of what we believe and what we do whether it’s prayer, the Sacraments, (or) the Catholic life that we live. I just felt that there was so much lack of clarity.” Whitty said.

Part of Whitty’s work reflects the Church and how he has encountered Christ in prayer. One of his favorite images is a man walking outside of a chapel through a stained glass window. Whitty’s caption with the post read, “​Jesus, grant me the courage to no longer pace back and forth outside the walls of my Father’s House.”

“Literally the Church has been doing this for 2000 years and it’s always relevant. I think that people think the Church is kind of this archaic thing from the past that still is kind of existing in shambles, but there’s so much beauty and I just want to share that.” Whitty said.

Maclaine Capshew, also a FOCUS missionary, would leave the site disappointed in the lack of Catholic representation compared to the large amount of comparison, jealousy, and soft pornography displayed. Her Instagram account @acatholicconvo was created to share truth, beauty, and goodness on a platform that is often the opposite of that through photography and artwork.

“I have the deep privilege of being able to showcase the infinite beauty of the Catholic Church that transcends time and space. (Beauty) that has always been there.” Capshew said.

But with the advantages of social media comes the traps of addiction, lack of human connection, and misconceptions. ​Nothing can replace attending Mass in person, sitting in silence, or establishing time to pray.

“If someone hasn’t been educated about the Catholic faith, they might see my Instagram and assume this is exactly what the Church teaches, this is what Catholics look like, this is what their homes look like, this is what they do in their free time, and just putting our Church in a box representative of my Instagram. That’s a deep fear of mine because my Instagram comes with comparison from the people who like to view the content.” Capshew said.

Mulderink also fears a disadvantage to social media is claiming it to be sufficient rather than just because of necessity. That people have become comfortable with Mass online with their coffee rather than experiencing it in person. People who continue only consuming Catholic content digitally are missing out on authentic interactions.

“If I am desiring to encounter Jesus and desiring to encounter the Lord of the universe who created my soul and my body digitally before I desire to encounter Him in real life in person, something is disordered, something is not right, because Jesus did not come digitally to the world.” Capshew said.

Capshew has watched Netflix’s documentary ​The Social Dilemma f​our times. The documentary features the honest truth about algorithms and big tech companies’ agendas to keep users scrolling for as long as possible, spoken from former executive employees.

In one of her posts featuring the Holy Family Shrine Catholic Church, she says addiction to Catholic social media is still addiction. In light of this, Capshew and another FOCUS missionary, McKenzi Weber, created a social media examination of conscience.

The social media examination of conscience provides questions to reflect on how social media is being consumed or created. While many may see social media as a good thing, the passive scrolling does not allow for your mind or heart to be changed.

“My hope is that you would read my posts and get off your phone.” Capshew said.

Capshew, Whitty, and Mulderink view using social media for evangelization as a way to invite Instagram users into a Church they may have never stepped foot in, but are able to experience part of the Church’s truth, beauty, and goodness on each account. The content creators agree that the encounter should be in the flesh, within a Church or through human connection. A couple photos or videos should not be the only place people go to discover the Gospel.

Whitty can attest to the way social media falls short.

“It’s never going to be as good as the real thing. That’s for sure.”