Detroit archbishop reaches out via Facebook

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

For the first time in his seven years leading Catholics in southeast Michigan, the archbishop of Detroit conducted a live Facebook discussion Wednesday, an attempt to reach the flock beyond a typical church bulletin’s range

The session was to highlight the Archdiocese of Detroit’s debut Mass for Pardon. The Friday event at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament is aimed at repenting for perceived sins committed by church leaders and others.

The brief “chat” fielding queries from the faithful also came just months after Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who is in his 60s, joined social media.

“I think it’s a set of formats we absolutely have to be engaged with,” he said. “…We need to be much more engaged with people who are in their 30s and younger.”

To reach a wider, tech-savvy audience, Vigneron spoke through the AOD Facebook page on Wednesday night. Seated near digital media specialist Annie Schunior, he answered questions such as “Who are you encouraging to come?” and “Will the archdiocese be considering itself absolved when this Mass is over?”

Meanwhile, the AOD has formalized its social media push in the last three years, said Tim Hinkle, the archdiocese’s Web manager, expanding a presence on Facebook and Twitter as well as launching an Instagram account that has since grown to thousands of followers.

Their social media team has also helped photograph area Mass Mobs, Pope Francis’ 2015 East Coast visit, even local pilgrims at World Youth Day in Poland last summer, Hinkle said.

The digital frontier is “really where everyone is at today,” he said. “People spend gobs and gobs of time on social media channels. … We want to be there in that mix and be there to present the gospel to people in that way.”

That push, along with Friday’s Mass, arrives as archdiocese officials work to address falling church attendance and those identifying as Catholic amid cultural change.

Next month, the archdiocese begins its historic Synod 2016. Scheduled to run Nov. 18-20, the area’s first such gathering in southeast Michigan of clergy, religious and laypeople since 1969 is intended to enhance everything from evangelization to administration, coordinators said.

“What we are attempting is nothing less than a radical overhaul of the church in Detroit, a complete reversal of our focus from an inward, or maintenance-focused church, to outward, or mission-focused church,” the website said.

The synod, Vigneron said this week, “really is for us a signature moment in this bigger effort to adjust to our new social context and do our mission of sharing the gospel the good news, the message of Jesus.”

Part of that involves examining the past and embracing the future.

The Mass for Pardon coincides with the Jubilee Year of Mercy that Pope Francis has declared and is patterned after a public stance by St. John Paul II, who sought God’s forgiveness for past sins in the Catholic Church worldwide, the archdiocese said.

During the ceremony Friday, Vigneron will ask God’s forgiveness for what could be considered “institutional sins” within the archdiocese over generations — including racism, clergy sex abuse and neglect toward helping the poor.

The Mass dovetails with its Unleash the Gospel initiative and shows “we are humbly acknowledging the faults that have gotten embedded in the life of our Catholic community, that get in the way of serving God and serving the gospel,” Vigneron said. “We want God to heal us. We want him to heal us and help us make a new beginning.”

That appeals to the Rev. Paul Snyder, pastor at St. Mary in Royal Oak, who helped spread the word on the parish’s Facebook page.

“It’s a powerful moment for the church in Detroit — that’s why I want to be part of it,” he said. “My hope is that people who may have been hurt by the church or its leaders may see this as an opportunity for healing, for remembering it’s Jesus who never fails us even though people might.”