Cyber Connections: Spirtual Tools of the 21st Century

By Geri L. Dreiling


The Marianists are using the Internet to create new ways to communicate, establish community and forward their message.

         For Blessed William Joseph Chaminade, Founder of the Marianists, and Venerable Adιle de Trenquellιon, founder of the Marianist Sisters, geographical distance was not a divider.  After the French Revolution, both Father Chaminade and Mother Adιle relied on letters as a way to encourage and unite the Marianist Family members with the common purpose of regenerating faith across France. Even when they weren't with them physically, they were with them spiritually.

            Today, the Internet is rapidly becoming a favorite communication tool in the quest to connect spiritually.  Web sites and blogs – part library, part coffee shop – offer a space in which people can wander in to gather information, submit prayer intentions and enroll in prayer alliances.  Virtual learning courses assist in faith formation and education.  Marianist cyber communications have turned strangers in far-flung countries into virtual neighbors.

            The Internet's impact across the world continues to grow.  According to figures compiled by Internet World Statistics, worldwide Internet usage during the last seven years grew by 225 percent.  During that same period, Internet usage in Africa leaped by 645 percent; in Latin America and the Caribbean, by 500 percent.

            "I think the Internet is the new missionary territory for the 21st century. It offers a new way of being church," says Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, MHSH, director of the Institute for Pastoral Initiatives at the University of Dayton.  "I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit is doing something dramatic in our world today.  I feel that more strongly now than I ever felt in my life."

Cyber Convenience

            When it comes to enhancing and strengthening faith, the Internet is a medium with many uses including distance learning.  For nearly a decade, the Institute for Pastoral Initiatives (IPI) at the University of Dayton has offered online courses through its distance learning initiative, the Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation (VLCFF).  The courses began as adult formation classes offered in partnership with a rural diocese where it was difficult for individuals to attend classes.  Since the program was started 10 years ago, the number of dioceses partnering with IPI has reached 36.  In addition, there are five non-diocesan partners, including the North American Center for Marianist Studies in Dayton which offers virtual learning courses with IPI.

            The virtual learning courses are popular because they fit into students' hectic schedules.  Students can log on to the course using their computer's Internet connection any time of the day or night to complete their homework as well as send any comments and reactions to the course material.

            An analysis of the demographic data indicates that a large percentage of the students are married people with children, says Richard Drabik, multi-media coordinator at the Institute for Pastoral Initiatives.  The most popular times for students to log on are from 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. to 6 a.m.  "Our assumption is that people are waiting until the kids are in bed to log on or before they get up in the morning.  That's when the house is quiet so they can focus and concentrate," says Drabik.

            Drabik adds that even though "people's lives are stretched to the limit, students still want to do some things for the church and to grow in their faith."

Cyber Ministries

            One of the concerns raised by people involved in virtual learning is whether it is possible to form community over the Internet.  The answer is "yes," according to Drabik.  "The virtual learning courses have proven time and again to be a place where a strong community can form."

            That doesn't surprise Joanne McCracken, who was a virtual learning student in a NACMS course offered through IPI.  "It was such a dynamic group of people and a great course.  We didn't want it to stop."  So they didn't.  Instead, they formed a cyber community that became an official Marianist community in February 2006 with members living in Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Ireland, Kenya and the United States.

            In this cyber community, using an ancient form of prayer known as Lectio Divina, members read Scripture slowly.  When a word or phrase contained in a passage jumps out, the member writes three to five sentences about why the phrase touched him or her and a short prayer. The e-mail is sent to all the members who read the reflections at their convenience.  "This makes the Scriptures come alive as we reflect on them and share their meaning in the context of our daily lives," says McCracken.

            This type of study creates "a very strong bond," says McCracken, who is also the coordinator for new cyber communities, noting that her virtual community, called Our Lady of the Round Table, has helped establish two new cyber communities.

            The Marianist Mission, which operates a prayer and religious card ministry and oversees donations and bequests to Marianist ministries around the world, also has recognized the power of the Internet to build intimate one-on-one relationships.  Eight years ago, the Mission launched a Web site that has become a powerful medium for ministry.  "With thousands of people each year writing to u by mail or e-mail and thousands more talking with us by phone, we have an extraordinary opportunity to unite people in prayer and spiritual optimism," says Executive Director Lisa Gooding.

            The Web has become an important tool for the Marianist Mission as it carries forward the mission of Mary and the church.  "We have the immediacy of responding to people from around the world regarding their spiritual needs that come via the Web," says Gooding.  "We see this growing as we upgrade our technology so that we can be a part of people's ongoing spiritual journey."

Cyber Dynamics

Examples of how the Web is changing the way Marianists communicate.

Virtual learning includes real sharing

            A virtual learning course offered by the Institute for Pastoral Studies and the North American Center for Marianist Studies covers the life of Blessed William Joseph Chaminade.  During a recent class, students tried to imagine what it must have been like for Chaminade as he worked to revive the Roman Catholic Church under the hostile conditions of post-Revolution France.  It was a classmate from Japan who was able to turn the abstract discussion into a personal one.  As a Christian and Catholic, the Japanese student knew firsthand how difficult it can be as a religious minority.

Reflecting on death

            When the health of the late Marianist Brother Walter Oberster began to fail, a Marianist cyber community reflected and prayed over daily Scripture readings with him via the Internet. "He shared his struggles and his fears and what it was like to die as a Marianist," says Joanne McCracken, a member of the community.  His reflections about the dying process had a profound impact on the others even though the messages were delivered online.

Staying in tough during crisis

            While at the Instituto Chaminad Marianista in Peru this summer, blogger and Marianist Brother Brian Halderman lived through a powerful earthquake.  On his blog, Brother Brian let his readers know he was okay and described the experience of praying with frightened Peruvians as the ground shook and the buildings shuddered.  Within a few hours after the earthquake occurred, Brother Brian says that the Marianist Family and friends thousands of miles away began e-mailing him with messages of love and concern.  "It was instant. I felt their immediate support and prayers."

Cyber Savvy

            While the Internet brings together a cyber community of people who understand what being a Marianist means, it also brings Marianists in contact with people who want to find out more about the religious order.

            "In the past, if you were interested in a religious order, you turned to the people who taught at your high school or staffed your parish," says Marianist Brother Charles Johnson, national vocation director for the Society of Mary.  But that's no longer always the case.  Now, information seekers Google religious orders to research them.  "Young men who come in contact with me – especially men who have not been to our schools or parishes or universities – have done their homework," says Brother Charles.  Once they decide to contact the Marianists, approximately 40 percent are making that first connection through the Web site.

            As a result, the Marianists have stepped up their presence on the Internet.  Tech-savvy Marianist Brother Brian Halderman, who helped redesign the Marianist vocation Web site, has been a moving force this past year in preparing and posting YouTube videos.  The videos run the gamut from educating men about the Society of Mary to sharing lessons learned by men and women who joined the Marianist Volunteer Program.

            While it might seem natural that, at 30, Brother Brian has embraced high-tech opportunities, he isn't the only one.  Brother Gene Frank, 76, is also part of the Internet brigade.  Brother Gene has a blog that began with the aim of serving as a repository for Marianist information.  Now the purpose has expanded to include social justice information about the poor living in Africa, Bangladesh, India and Mexico.  "This is a whole new age.  Our method of communicating about religious life has to be very technologically savvy," says Brother Gene.

            Though the Internet is a logical place for young recruits to gather information, the Internet is also a gathering ground for current Marianists.

            "FamilyOnline, a biweekly e-mail newsletter, is a prime example," says Brother Gene.

            Launched in November 2002, FamilyOnline provides news, health updates, prayer requests, community celebrations and personnel announcements.  Joan Suda, the editor of FamilyOnline, says, "The response to FamilyOnline has been overwhelming.  In just five years, it has become a must-read resource for the Society of Mary."

Cyber Connections

            What would the Marianist founders think of using the Internet as a communications tool?  When the question, McCracken doesn't hesitate. "They would love this!" she says.

            Both letters sent through "snail mail" and contacts made through the Internet create and strengthen the connections between people.  McCracken says, "The Internet gives people who share the same ideals and the same struggles a way to come together as a Marianist community."