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Being a digital Catholic

In many countries, like Scotland, ‘Religious’ is a declining demographic, but that doesn’t mean there are hordes of new atheists.

Data from the United States shows the percentage of atheists and agnostics has stagnated for six years regardless of the decrease in religious. What has instead grown is the ‘nothing in particular’, also called the ‘spiritual but not religious.’

Alex Jones once described himself as such. A cradle Catholic, he fell away from the Faith and began exploring non-religious meditation. Today, having refound his Faith, he is the CEO of Hallow, the world’s leading Catholic meditation app.

“I was in Silicon Valley for a few years, which is certainly not the heart of Christianity in America. You ask, ‘are you religious?’ and they reply ‘No.’ You ask, ‘are you spiritual?’ and they would talk about how important their spiritual life was.

“When I thought of meditation, unfortunately, my mind did not first go to St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross but secular meditation.”

The now-popular secular meditation apps had just launched, and were ‘cheaper than flying to India for a few weeks’, compacted into short 10 minute chunks. It was there that he first found meditation.

He said: “You had this short journey charted out for you before work in the morning. You could close your eyes, plug in your headphones, and be led through this technique.”

But he noted that there can’t be a spirituality without a belief system underpinning it, and eventually whenever he would meditate, his mind would wander to Catholicism.

He started asking around, to priests and friends, whether there was an intersection between Faith and meditation.

“And they all laughed at me and said, ‘yeah. It’s called prayer,’” he said.

“I had memorised prayers as a kid, but I had never tried contemplative prayer.”

Presented in a slick, easy-to-use layout that utilises its own style, the Hallow app brings users Catholic meditation in a way that rivals its secular competitors.

The app is divided into three: ‘Meditate’, ‘Sleep’, and ‘Music’, with a further home and profile section – the latter allowing for goal-tracking and journaling. Hallow has features specifically designed for children, too.

Users can pray their daily rosary, the Stations of the Cross, or Lectio Divina; hear Bible stories or meditations before bed; listen to curated homilies and podcasts that include Bishop Robert Barron and Fr Mike Schmitz’s Bible in a Year; or hear spiritual music and chant.

“My sister seems to get 100 notifications from her phone every second,” Jones said.

“There’s so much more anxiety for a young person growing up in the age of social media. Technology is a tool, and whilst it can be used for bad things, we can also use to invite God into our lives in ways that would be difficult without that tool.”

He acknowledges that phones are so often the place of business, distraction and anxiety, ‘but to have this space on your phone that you can dedicate to God, it’s simple and tech-free as tech can get. You just pick a session, press play, and you don’t have to even look at your screen.’

The Church hasn’t been quick to adapt to the age of the smartphone but Fr Schmitz’s Bible in a Year podcast attracting millions of listeners shows technology can be used to reach people. Jones stressed that Catholic apps can’t compete solely on their religious orientation.

If the religious apps on your phone are the only ones not living up to industry standards, they won’t be used.

“It’s really important to create as high quality content and technology as you can. The richness and the beauty of the Church deserves a rich and beautiful presentation of it, whether that’s technology or media,” he said.

“With young folks especially, the opportunity we have is instead of to debate, to lead with inviting them to the powerful and beautiful spirituality of the Church, inviting them to give it a try. And my guess is that it will lead them to the same place it led us.”

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