Bishop Buenaventura Famadico (left) of San Pablo, Laguna, and Auxillary Bishop Roberto Mallari of San Fernando, Pampanga, show their Facebook accounts on their tablets. Photo by Noel Celis, AFP
MANILA - For some of the Philippines' most powerful clergymen, stepping off the pulpit and into cyberspace felt impossibly daunting until they took their first "selfies" and posted them on Facebook.
Their initial forays into the brave new virtual world took place in a groundbreaking class for 50 of the Philippines' top bishops and monsignors in Manila earlier this month, part of the Catholic Church's strategy to remain relevant in the digital age.
Sean-Patrick Lovett, a program director with Vatican Radio who flew in from Rome to lead the seminar, said Social Media 101 had not been taught to such a group of senior Church figures anywhere in the world before and he was surprised by his students' reactions.
"I've never seen bishops so happy and so excited. They were taking pictures of themselves and putting them on Facebook,"
Lovett told AFP after the three-hour session, which saw the priests partner with younger, more tech-savvy seminarians or nuns to show them the ropes.
"After half an hour on the web, one bishop became very emotional. People he hadn't heard from in years were contacting him."
Bishop Buenaventura Famadico, who leads the major San Pablo diocese near Manila, gave the impression the class was a light bulb moment after years of largely avoiding computers.
"I am a very private person. I still have a very limited appreciation about the Internet and social media," the 57-year-old told AFP.
"But now there is that opening, about staying in touch with others through Facebook."
Famadico recounted that during the training seminar he opened the webpage of his own diocese and found it was so out of date it still had his predecessor listed in his place.
"Now I have new friends, I contacted my brothers and sisters abroad. I am very encouraged to upload my thoughts and homilies to my Facebook account," he said.
The class involved teaching the clergymen, some of them in their 70s, simply how to use the Internet, set up Facebook and Twitter accounts and, most importantly, how to make their messages worth reading.
One seminarian said that, while some priests already had their own Facebook pages, most did not and one elderly bishop had never even used a computer before.
"Just typing on the keyboard was a new experience for him," said the seminarian, who asked not to be identified.
Social media missionaries
The Catholic Church is already using social media as a powerful tool to deliver God's messages, and Lovett said his students were encouraged by Pope Francis having nearly 3.6 million Twitter followers.
The Philippines' top clergyman, Archbishop of Manila Cardinal Luis Tagle, is also prominent on social media with his Facebook account attracting more than 450,000 "likes".
Yet Lovett said the bishops had struggled with following their leaders' examples because they simply felt overwhelmed with unfamiliar technologies.
"The bishops know that social media is important. But it is one thing to know it and another to experience it," Lovett said.
Lovett said it was important for Church leaders to adapt so they could reach the widest audience possible, particularly in countries such as the Philippines where the youth demographic is so strong.
"The average age of the Filipino population is 23 years. If you want to talk to 23-year-olds, you have to use the language they use," he said.
And the Philippines is so important to the Church because it has about 80 million Catholics -- the biggest number of any country in Asia -- a legacy of Spanish colonial rule that ended in 1898.
Lovett said one key part of the class, which was also attended by the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, was how to attract and hold the interest of the youth.
"The old days of putting long homilies (online) and expecting young people to read them is over," he said.
Monsignor Crisologo Manongas, 56, said he and his fellow students were taught not to use long sermons but use "short messages that can be picked up by the people".
They were also told to use more photographs rather than words. "Nowadays, it is pictures that talk," he said.
Lovett said the class also addressed the priests' fears of being too vulnerable on the web by teaching them how to use privacy settings and set up special "groups" where access is restricted.
"We taught them how to be careful about who you invite and who you befriend, and what you say and how you say it," he said.
Lovett said he hoped the initial enthusiasm shown by the clergymen would not flare out after the class.
"Because people want to be contacted by their bishops. They want to know that their bishops are out there, they want to be inspired by their presence," he said.
However Lovett also indicated that the priests had deep reservations that may prevent them from fully embracing the Internet.
"Some bishops said to me, 'I'm afraid I might become addicted to Facebook,'" he said.
"Then they asked: 'If I become addicted, can I pray while I'm on Facebook?'"