St. Louis — A few hours before the U.S. bishops' spring general assembly opened Wednesday in St. Louis, the meeting already had begun.
Tweets were trickling out from bishops, media and observers using the hashtag #usccb15. Among their first items to share: a link to the live stream of the proceedings, bishops making their presence known and media types encouraging followers to watch their live coverage.
Approximately 250 bishops attended the June 10-12 assembly at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown St. Louis.
Surveying the sea of bishops, the use of laptops, iPads and cellphones was apparent. Tweeting, texting and emailing made a seamless integration into the normal proceedings of business. It was a reflection of how communications technology continues to "evolve at a dizzying rate," said Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, N.M., who gave a presentation on communications as head of the bishops' Committee on Communications.
Wester announced a new Catholic Church app, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is expected to release in mid-July and appeal to the ever-increasing number of people accessing information from a mobile platform. Forty percent of traffic to the bishops' website, usccb.org, is from mobile devices, according to Wester. Available for iOS and Android formats, the free app will include a parish finder, news and more.
Wester recalled an encounter he had about eight or nine years ago with Fr. Daniel Dorsey, uncle of Twitter co-founder and St. Louis native Jack Dorsey.
Father Dorsey was on his phone, messaging with his nephew about the bowl of Cheerios he was eating. "Tell your nephew he's wasting his time," Wester told the priest. A few years later, he ran into Father Dorsey after Twitter became a wild success. "I guess I was wrong," Wester joked.
The rapid pace in which information is shared through social media helped bishops who attended an afternoon news conference.
A reporter asked about the Vatican's announcement that morning of a new tribunal to handle cases of bishops accused of not protecting children against abusive priests. Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vt., was sitting in the bishops' morning session when someone tweeted him a link to the announcement, and he responded with knowledge of the breaking news.
According to Matt Palmer, the USCCB's social media coordinator since 2012, the number of bishops on Twitter has increased, especially in the last few years. He estimated about 40 bishops have personal accounts. That presence fluctuates on Facebook, he said.
"It can be someone on staff that is nudging them, or just personal curiosity," Palmer told the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the St. Louis archdiocese. "They are seeing this as an extension of the mission of evangelization. I think it will only increase as the brother bishops share their positive experiences."
The USCCB has a presence on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Palmer also used Periscope, a live-streaming app through Twitter, to broadcast the media conference. It drew about 150 followers.
"The church is built for this," Palmer said. "Evangelization is in our religious DNA. It's just a matter of tapping into it and not being scared. If we're not out there talking to people, there's going to be a void. We have to be proud about what we do."
[Jennifer Brinker is a staff writer at the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the St. Louis archdiocese.]