Most of the Saints that we know about were popular. Of course, there are far more saints that we don't know about than those we do. Still, popular priests and bishops are no rarity in history. When the modern media came into its own, American-born Fulton Sheen was there to step in and bridge the gap between the ordinary Joe and Jane American and the Roman Catholic Church.
The internet isn't really any different. In the past few years, a few priests and bishops have risen to be the cream of the crop in terms of likes, followers and downloads. Bishop Robert Barron established his Word on Fire program when he was the rector of Mundelein Seminary. Fr. John Zuhlsdorf and his blog What Does the Prayer Really Say? came to prominence as Pope Benedict XVI re-opened the door to the Traditional Latin Mass. Fr. James Martin exploded onto the scene to exploit off the cuff remarks made by Pope Francis. There are plenty of others. Priests in my area like Fr. Joshua Johnson have local celebrity status online. Surely, there are plenty of other "famous" priests and bishops who have gained their notoriety in a more old-fashioned way like Fr. Jonathan Morris (appearing on TV news), Bp. Charles Chaput (authoring books) and Bp. Athanasius Schneider (public speaking).
But fame isn't good in itself and in a time when knowledge is power, we have to remember that power corrupts. There's a danger to being popular and to having an audience for one's every thought, musing and kitty cat meme. So what are the ups and the downs of priests with online personalities and what's verdict?
We have to say that there can be great value when a priest gains an audience. St. Paul reminds us in Romans 10 that no one can hear unless there's someone to preach to them. If youtube-fame or a random retweet gets the gospel in front of someone who otherwise never hears it, well that seems like a win.
I can also speak from experience that statistics which my generation (I was born in 1979) don't value much at all are genuinely important to other generations. I was slow in earning credibility with the kids in my Confirmation preparation group when I first arrived in the parish... So I told them I would cancel all of the remaining classes and let them be confirmed without any further instruction or obligations if they - all together - had more twitter followers than me. They laughed and took out their phones to start the tally. They came up with about 1200 followers. I told them username and I was met with silence when they realized that I, indeed, had more followers by a wide margin than all of them. Silly as it may seem, that statistic had at least as much role to play in earning credibility with that group as anything I had said until that point. Twenty years ago, showing them a book that I had written or an album I had released would have had a similar effect. Sixty years ago, a velum certificate from an out of state college would do the job. Now, those numbers are a real measure of credibility.
Social Media - with it's near infinite content - is a real war for attention. When someone wants to know the real story with something, the modern mind looks more for consensus than for real study or evidence of experience. Given the choice between someone who has the right answer on a boring website with six slashes in the URL that requires three clicks to read and someone who has two-hundred likes on a tweet that can be read in five seconds, there really isn't going to be much competition. When a "personality" priest speaks, the fact that his name and his face and his username are familiar plays right into the natural tendency within us to prefer the familiar. Of course, in the past when priests stayed in a parish for years, the local pastor, often through sheer force of familiarity, gained real local credibility without needing a single other credential.
So, when a priest or a bishop becomes a "personality" and uses that tool to teach the truth, they are operating in a long tradition of saints - canonized and unknown alike. That's a real upside.
Our Lady - at Fatimá and Akita - told us to be on the lookout for priests and bishops who will teach error and lead many to Hell. There are plenty of priests - online and in real life - who have cheated the faithful for years of the truth about contraception, abortion, the nature of sin, the real meaning of God's mercy, personal judgment and justification, ecumenism and whether or not Heaven is automatic... And we can see the effects of those deceptions... Fewer than 1 in 5 Catholics goes to Mass on Sunday. Of that small number, fewer than 1 in 5 makes an annual Confession and so about 5% or so of Catholics are doing the bare minimum, basic standard of being Catholic that we call the Precepts of the Church. The number of Catholics who believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and in the necessity of Jesus for Salvation and in the necessity of Forgiveness of Sin for Salvation is horrifying small. The number of Catholics who believe anything other than other local people on essential moral matters like abortion, regular worship and sexual morality is almost nil. Those Catholics who do are almost all located in communities where that belief happens to the be the norm.
And so, when a "personality" priest uses his notoriety to continue or worsen this crisis in the Church, he not only endangers souls, but he damages the work of all other priests trying to do the right thing.
We need only look to the infamous Cdl. Cupich who went on national television and on twitter to tell the nation that the recent horrifying realities of Former-Cardinal McCarrick were just a "rabbit hole" and that climate change was a far more important topic for us to focus on...
So do the pros outweigh the cons? Well, the command of Jesus is to proclaim the Gospel to all the world in all generations until He comes back. And so even if we find ourselves in a country with a state-controlled media and propgranda-driven internet restrictions, we are obliged to use the gifts that we have to proclaim the Gospel.
Priests aren't excepted from that command. Actually, if and when a priest becomes a personality, the temptations might be far greater than they are on the laity. A famous lay Catholic may well stay clear of this or that issue or topic... But a priest is obliged, as a vicar of Jesus Christ to take the Gospel everywhere... He is bound by duty and by being an alter Christus to speak the truth in season and out of season. And when that's unpopular, he has to be willing to risk his likes and his follower count and his downloads to teach the truth, even when people don't want to hear it.
So the verdict is simple and clear. Yes, all Catholics and all Priests are bound to use whatever gifts and talents are at their disposal to share the Love and Truth of Jesus with others. But let's all remember to pray for those people - lay and clergy - who find themselves in the public eye... To whom much is given, much will be expected.