GRANTS PASS — Massive buttons for Facebook, Twitter and Flickr are prominent on the web page of St. Anne Parish here. Designer of the site is Father Bill Holtzinger, known as Oregon's tech-savvy "geek priest."
Father Holtzinger, 45, has created a network of podcasts, websites and social network pages, all with the intent of spreading news of Jesus and the Catholic Church.
His personal Facebook page has almost 5,000 "likes." There, he posts photos and observations.
Sometimes he is just letting people know that clergy are regular guys who hike and surf and watch football. With other contributions, his aim is starting conversations about values and faith. Last week, he included a brief post sent while in a waiting room at an oil-change shop. He mentioned his delight at finding a way to switch the television channel from "The View," a daytime talk show.
"I honestly have nothing good to say about the show," the priest spoke into his phone, which software converted to text before he sent it on the way to Facebook. "It illustrates the worst of our society."
That began a discussion, with most contributors confirming his opinion. Father Holtzinger has recorded 380 podcast episodes, speaking about scripture, faith, society and life's choices. The podcasts have been downloaded a half million times. He is aware of the revolutionary change this has brought. A priest is still primarily a man for his local parish, but can also preach around the globe.
Father Holtzinger tends a separate Facebook page for St. Anne Parish. It includes hundreds of photos and dozens of videos celebrating parish life. Last week, the priest sent a post from a parish cultural fair and invited everyone to drop by. The parish school and the youth ministry also have Facebook pages.
"The point of all this is evangelization," he says.
His attention to Facebook and Twitter, plus his skill at texting, keep him in close contact with staff and parishioners. People have even sent private messages to him on Facebook, letting him know someone was ill and in need of anointing.
Father Holtzinger says he's surprised how many Facebook users are middle aged and older. Even his 87-year-old mother keeps up with him on Facebook. Still, 20- and 30-somethings make up the largest part of his network. Teens seem to use Facebook mostly to keep in touch with each other, not to explore ideas or the world, he reports.
People have told him that they returned to the church because of his Facebook page, websites and podcasts.
Social media like Facebook call for concise communications, which say a lot in a few words. The idea, Father Holtzinger says, is not to put out a lot of information, but to bring people into the conversation. Once that starts, the teaching can gain depth.
He's still trying to figure out what to do with Twitter and its 140-character limit. So far, he's used it to report on daily activities so people feel comfortable with him.
Father Holtzinger knows that more and more people will use more and more social media and that gives him a chance to reach more people.
That said, he makes a conscious effort to be available to people who have not gone digital. And even for parishioners who are plugged in, there are certain conversations he'll have only in person. Matters that are heated or controversial ought to be discussed face to face, he says.
"I'm a fan of high-tech and low-tech," he says. "Low-tech will always be there and we need to know when to use it."