01 September 2023

Christian testimony in contemporary society

‘Can one evangelise via social media without disguising as an influencer?’

“On social networks, people want to follow a priest who remains a priest. Not a priest who becomes a showman, or a clown. To each their own role. Our guiding principle is to act for the goodness of the message and not for the maximum effectiveness of media exposure”. 

To affirm this was Father Jean-Baptiste Bienvenu, who was ordained in France in 2016 at the Emmanuel community. Today he also coordinates Father Blog, a well-known video platform (padreblog.fr, under the subtitle “Connected to what is essential”), consulted mainly through social networks. It has been one of the most followed realities of French-speaking digital evangelization for over a decade. With its comments and dialogues, often with a slight note of humour, it never loses sight of the context of current events. Also credited to the priest is a “practical and spiritual guide to free oneself from screens” (Ils nous bouffent, Artège), which highlights the risks of an excessive use of digital tools. In an original way, the work also proposes a “self-assessment test” to see how screens are prioritized in each person’s life. Father Bienvenu is also a teacher of moral theology at the Versailles Seminary.


You have followed in Father Pierre-Hervé Grosjean’s footsteps as coordinator of the group ‘Father Blog’, now made up of five young priests. In what sense is it a collective work?

We follow all content together. In fact, we have made it a rule never to publish anything until the others are brought up to speed. If we notice a problem, we discuss it to then make changes. This group method also gives a certain balance to our work, which is only concerned with content, given that we have volunteers who help with the technical aspects.


In your opinion, what justifies a commitment to digital evangelization?

Certainly, the need to reach people where they are. In short, a principle of reality. We primarily are the ones who go towards the people, and not the other way around. In this sense, social networks today are like a new agora


Is getting into a technical tool always a challenge?

One technical difficulty comes from the existence of an algorithm that determines the exposure of the message. Therefore, the content must please the algorithm. Precisely for this reason it is important for the actors of the new evangelization on social networks to reflect on the ethical rules to be respected, on a personal and team level. You certainly can’t do anything to earn the right to be better exposed by the algorithm. Therefore, sometimes, it is necessary to deliberately choose not to get as much visibility as possible, precisely because one does not want to cross certain lines, in terms of language, narcissism and so on. It’s never simple, and we are aware that others bend much more than we do to the algorithm’s criteria.


Could you give us an example?

First off, we try to focus on the message, without talking about ourselves. Also, we are careful never to act like clowns. In short — with our faithful — we try to remain the priests we are after Mass. Normal and accessible priests. Even in a rather informal way, we use the same words used in a homily or in a live meeting, remaining faithful to the Magisterium, without getting into overly personal opinions. We are at the service of the spreading of a message and not our individual opinions. We do not chase after new trends and we do not ‘break out dancing’, so to speak. We try to be ourselves. And if social media doesn’t like it, no problem.


Are there any risks for a priest?

The first risk, especially for a priest, is narcissism. The fact of seeking and evaluating personal success. We work as a team for this reason too, in order to maintain the simplicity and humility necessary for balanced communication, without overexposure.


Are those who follow you young people?

The majority are under the age of 35, but there is also a more loyal audience that has been following us for years and may be older, in their forties.


Is a priest on social media an influencer?

He is a priest who proposes a message that seems good to him, with the awareness, of course, that it will have an influence, as always happens in the public sphere. But is this influence perhaps hidden or Machiavellian? No. It is just a good message spoken without fear and then destined to go its own way, being at the service of Christ.


Is it possible to connect traditional and digital pastoral care?

We never know exactly who our listeners are on social media. But we propose the Father Blog as a complement to a normal pastoral life, or possibly as a first step towards this community and parish life. In general, it is not possible to build a spiritual life without a real community, without people in flesh and blood, the celebrations and the Sacraments. Every now and then however, we happen to meet with some faithful who tell us that Father Blog was their first step.


Is this also a way to reach non-practising people?

Yes, although I don’t know what the numbers are. In this sense, we [our content] remain free and open to all.


You have published an essay on the relationship we have with social media. Can you tell us about it?

It is a reflection also to say that social networks, as such, are not necessarily always good for humanity. Of course, they also contribute to individualism, to the commercialization of everyday life, to the omnipresence of advertising. There is undoubtedly something negative that risks “confining” people. But at the same time, since these means are part of our world, it is necessary for us to be present. Personally, in this sense, I try never to forget that the heart of my ministry must remain in real encounter [with people]. I would like to imagine a world without influencers and with only the encounters between people, without the impositions of an algorithm that conditions so many human relationships. In a somewhat paradoxical way, therefore, we try also to be present on social networks to help people maintain a balance and a certain critical distance from these tools.


(From: L'Osservatore Romano, weekly edition in English, Friday, 1 September 2023)