Bishops for the Digital Age
At noon time this morning (6:00am ET), Pope Francis named Bishop Christopher Coyne the new bishop of the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont.
Formerly an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Bishop Coyne is probably best known for his media expertise. He was the first blogging priest to be named a bishop back in 2011 and remains one of the most active bishops on Twitter. At November’s meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Coyne was voted chairman-elect of the Committee on Communications.
A few years back I interviewed him about his online ministry:
In conjunction with the new appointment, Bishop Coyne unveiled his revamped website at BishopCoyne.org:
It’s a clean and well-designed site built on WordPress, which is the world’s most popular content management system (in part because it’s free and open source.) It’s the kind of simple, effective website every bishop could and should commission.
It seems to me that more and more bishops are realizing the importance of online ministry. The Internet is of course just one component of a healthy and vibrant episcopacy, which should be ultimately grounded in the sacraments and a personal encounter with Christ. But bishops are, fundamentally, teachers. And their teachings stand to affect far more people online than from their pulpits—especially inactive Catholics and those disenchanted by our institutions.
(A close priest friend of mine, an active tweeter, says his Twitter reflections on each day’s Gospel typically reach 10-50 times more people than the number who attend his daily Mass in person. What St. Josemaria Escriva did through The Way and Pascal through his Pensées—planting seeds of the Gospel through short, pithy reflections—more and more priests are doing online. Again, this isn’t to say social media replaces sacraments or homilies, only that it provides an effective route of access to people we would otherwise miss.)
I continue to admire Bishop Coyne’s online work and will resist adding more praise to the pile. But I do want to note his intriguing decision to shift to a personal domain name (BishopCoyne.org). He could have chosen to house his resources on a diocesan domain (like ArchIndy.org or VermontCatholic.org) or on his previous blog URL (thoughtsofacatholicbishop.blogspot.com). But his move to a personal domain is smart for three reasons.
First, the new domain is simple and easy to remember. Want to follow Bishop Coyne’s reflections or see his thoughts on topic A, B, or C? Just go to BishopCoyne.org. Two words, one simple URL—it’s easy to remember and share. The personal domain will also boost his visibility in the search rankings since, for example, more people will be searching “Bishop Coyne thoughts on marriage” than “Diocese of Burlington thoughts on marriage”. I think every bishop should own and use a domain associated with his name.
Second, using BishopCoyne.org makes his resources more portable. When bishops move from one diocese to another, as happens often, their online resources typically get “stuck” on the former diocese’s page. Even if you copy-and-paste the resources to the new diocese’s website, older links will continue directing to the previous diocesan webpage and your search rankings will be jumbled. It’s a frustrating mess. However, by using a personal domain, Bishop Coyne has attached his resources to his person. They now will move with him wherever he goes, adding continuity to his online ministry.
Third, a personal domain highlights an important ecclesial distinction. It affirms that a bishop’s Petrine teaching authority is rooted in his personal office, not his diocese. It’s not the diocese that teaches and leads, it’s the bishop. The diocese indeed “teaches” but only to the extent that it operates in the name of the bishop. A personal domain elevates this subtle distinction.
For these reasons and more, I strongly encourage more bishops to follow Bishop Coyne’s lead and grow personal, online platforms from which to teach and evangelize (e.g., ArchbishopCupich.org or CardinalDolan.org). This isn’t about creating a cult of personality or subverting our helpful diocesan structures. It’s about amplifying a bishop’s teaching effectiveness and reach.
Bishop Coyne provides a great example of this. When future historians reflect on the American episcopacy, they will point to him as a pioneer who harnessed “new ardor, methods, and expressions” to teach and evangelize.
(I should note that bishops don’t have to do all this themselves. Like Pope Francis and Venerable Fulton Sheen, Bishop Coyne leaned on the expertise of others to create his media platform. He cast the vision and provided the content but they handled the technical details. If you need some help and don’t know where to turn, email me at [email protected] and I would be happy to point you in the right direction.)