You’d have to be living under a rock not to notice that the Catholic Church has gone through some cataclysmic shifts of late. From the horror of “pedophile priests” to Pope Francis’ refreshing reframe, the seemingly immovable institution has changed plenty. But surprisingly enough, a strong reaction to where the Church’s brand has been heading is not a new occurrence.
Historically, when there has been a threat to the Church (Gnosticism and the Protestant Reformation are two of many) there has always been a vigorous response — from the Synod of Rome in 382, through the Counter Reformation (beginning with the Council of Trent in 1545), to the changes of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. In fact, the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI (the first papal resignation in 598 years) and the election of Pope Francis could easily be interpreted as a modern day “brand revise,” created to rescue an ailing brand.

How is Pope Francis changing the public’s perception of the Catholic Church’s brand? How about the fact that he was named the TIME magazine’s 2013 Person of the Year? Not enough for you? The Pope was also named Person of the Year by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender-interest magazine The Advocate. When was the last time THAT happened?

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Then there’s the Church’s commitment to “New Evangelization.” Books such as The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet are required reading for those Catholic activists who want to make a difference.

And it’s not just lip service from the top, by the way. The new Pope even has a Twitter account with over 3.5 million followers around the world.

But the big difference is that thanks to today’s democratized media, new evangelization doesn’t just come from the leadership. Much like the Gutenberg Bible used a state-of-the-art invention to innovate the distribution of Church doctrine in the mid 15th century, today’s savvy believers are encouraging new evangelization with the same technology you might use to read this blog, find your way home, or even play Angry Birds — an app.

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Through a 21st-century mashup of the centuries-old story of the Catholic Mass and today’s Adobe’s Digital Publishing Suite (DPS), graphic designer Dan Gonzalez wrote, designed, coded, and deployed Mass Explained, a robust iPad app with sound, video, 360° panoramas, 3D objects, and all the other digital ‘bells and whistles’ we’ve come to expect from the most sophisticated apps.

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Forming Disciples Final.002Gonzalez used Adobe’s new technology to target a specific issue facing the Church that he believed he could change. According to Gonzalez’s research, Catholic college students and young Catholic adults are at a pivotal point in their lives where they either accept their parents’ faith or detach from the Church altogether. In her book, Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell reports that of the Catholics who leave the Church, 80% do it by the time they turn 23. Gonzalez believed he could stem this tide through Mass education. And what better way to reach this generation of digital natives than through an engaging tablet app?

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The Catholic Church has a vast inheritance of paintings, sculptures, vessels, and vestments, all of which help illustrate the evolution of the Mass. The Church also has a treasury of prayers in Greek and Latin, Gregorian chants, and liturgical music, many of which come alive on Gonzalez’s app. For example, Gonzalez says that hearing the Eucharistic Prayer along with the Hamotzi (the ancient Hebrew blessing over bread) dramatically reveals the source of the Catholic prayer, adding profound richness to the Mass experience. In the same vein, Gonzalez says it comes as a surprise to many to learn that Vivaldi’s familiar Gloria is actually sacred liturgical music. And while nothing can compare to actually seeing the art, visiting the architectural sites, hearing the music and prayers or holding sacred objects in your hand, modern technology allows for a more engaging user experience than static text on a printed page. Especially to a tech-savvy generation that has come to expect this type of interaction.

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Many of today’s most successful technological innovations are nothing more than the combination of something old and something new. eBay, for example, is simply a flea market or bazaar (perhaps the world’s second oldest business) combined with the Internet. Gonzalez’s Mass Explained,  too – combines centuries-old ritual and dogma with up-to-the-minute technology.

Who knew the Catholic Church could be so au courant?