Suddenly, the mainstream media has discovered religious folk on the web. Who knew?
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.”…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 millionTwitter 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.