The three most popular Catholic Facebook pages in Britain belong to the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, this esteemed publication and Holy Family parish, Mossend.
Holy Family is not – on the surface – a particularly unusual parish. Mossend is one of the string of small towns dotted through Lanarkshire, the hilly gut of Scotland between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Holy Family’s parishioners are mainly the descendants of Irish Catholic immigrants drawn in by long-closed coal mines.
Yet cousins John Patrick Mallon, 26, and Brian Timmons, 24, have ensured that if you are a Scottish Catholic on Facebook you know about Holy Family. John Patrick is shorter, ebullient and mile-a-minute. Brian is slender and restrained, more technical.
“It was the spring of last year we started running the parish Facebook page,” says John Patrick. “We’d done a few videos for the church website and Fr [James] Grant, the parish priest, asked us to take it on.”
They began covering events and posting videos they filmed and edited themselves.
“Growing up we were always making wee videos,” he says. “It was just something we really liked. And once we started putting them up we were amazed at how popular they were.”
Though they post of a mixture of links, updates and videos to the page, it is the videos that have been key to their success. They began producing them at a time when Facebook was heavily prioritising video content, which helped. But their short films, which now encompass interviews, reports from Catholic events and even historical re-enactments of major episodes in Scottish Catholic history, are professional and appealing in their own right. They are often watched tens of thousands of times. One of them, on how to behave when visiting a church for the first time, has wracked up half a million views.
“Going to Kraków for World Youth Day last year was a big thing,” John Patrick explains. “It was intense. We were filming everything then up to 2am each night editing together daily reports. But we realised people were tuning in every day for them.”
That success and the general popularity of their efforts encouraged the two to quit their jobs and launch Sancta Familia Media, Scotland’s first new media Catholic startup.
The Scottish Church has been quick to recognise a good thing, even if the intricacies of social media remain opaque to many. Numerous dioceses and Church bodies have commissioned Sancta Familia Media to cover events, which they promote through the popular parish Facebook page.
David Kerr, director of communications for the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh and a former BBC news journalist, is among the many Church figures impressed by their success.
“They are a fabulous example of the empowering and democratising nature of social media,” he says, “and a reminder that social media is, in many regards, a new and virtual Areopagus where Catholics can articulate what we believe and why we believe it in a way that is coherent, compassionate and compelling to our contemporary society.”
Bishop John Keenan of Paisley has expressed deep “admiration and appreciation” for their work, and joked that they will soon be bigger “than Sky and the Beeb”.
They have been embraced by the Church because their work marries enthusiasm and devotion to the Catholic faith. “Part of it is coming from a strong Catholic family,” John Patrick says. “We’ve always loved the Church and feel it gets misrepresented a lot. We believe the Church’s teaching are good for the world.”
They are aware of the liberal-conservative division that roils Catholic social media but try to steer a course between the two poles. “It’s one universal Church we are all part of,” John Patrick says. “At the end of the day we all believe in Jesus, the Mass and the Eucharist. But I will tell you an interesting thing: generally our videos are most popular with women over 65, but the one we’ve done on the Tridentine Mass is most popular with men aged 25 to 34.”
Their young career has already brought them to the attention of one of the most famous conservative figures in the Church, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who they interviewed recently when he visited Scotland to offer a Pontifical High Mass. “He couldn’t have been nicer, actually,” John Patrick says. “I was a bit nervous as he has a reputation as ‘God’s Rottweiler’, but he was very pleasant, a very gentle man.”
He’s unlikely to be the last Prince of the Church they meet. As Catholics struggle to make the faith resonate online, many will seek to copy and learn from the Scottish cousins who have discovered how to make Catholicism go viral.
Ian Dunn is editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer
This article first appeared in the October 27 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here