January 8, 2014 — Jesuit saints aren’t announced every day. So when Pope Francis recently canonized Peter Faber, a roommate of St. Ignatius and a cofounder of the Society of Jesus, a group of Jesuits who run an upstart, slightly irreverent website called The Jesuit Post responded in true form: they photoshopped funny captions on a serious painting and then sat back while their handiwork spread like wildfire on the Internet.
The cartoon shows St. Francis Xavier welcoming the newest Jesuit saint to heaven while St. Ignatius asks, “How’d you finally get in?” St. Peter Faber responds, “I know the new bouncer,” and popping up from the lower right hand corner is a finger-wagging Pope Francis, who was once a nightclub bouncer, saying, “OK, just this once…”
On January 24, 2014, The Jesuit Post, TJP for short, will mark its second anniversary. Founded by three Jesuits — Father Paddy Gilger, Eric Sundrup and Sam Sawyer — old friends who met during the early years of their Jesuit formation, TJP targets 18 to 35-year olds with content exploring the intersection between faith and culture. That means: an article examining whether curse words belong in prayer; a look at the controversy surrounding the Rolling Stone rock star cover featuring the Boston Marathon bombing suspect; an open letter to parents encouraging them to let their babies wail at church; and an interview with University of Michigan basketball coach John Beilein.
The idea, according to incoming Editor-in-Chief Eric Sundrup, was very Ignatian — “to speak to people about God as one friend speaks to another.
“We looked around and said ‘How do we communicate with our friends?’ and for us, that was social media. That’s how we shared articles, things we thought were funny, things we thought were deep and things we thought were stupid and funny. And so we said what is the Society of Jesus doing in that space, and it wasn’t enough and we wanted to shift that.”
Although they had busy schedules as full-time students preparing for ordination, Sundrup, Sawyer and Gilger quickly went to work to launch a website. They named their startup The Jesuit Post, bought a web domain, designed a logo and started recruiting other Jesuits in formation to write about their interests, hobbies and popular culture. Perry Petrich, S.J., who is both a philosophy student and a fifth grade teacher in Chicago, signed up to do Deadbeat, a regular column chronicling interesting obituaries; and Vinny Marchionni, S.J., who teaches history at a Jesuit high school in Baltimore, offered up a culture column called Throwback Thursday.
Working 12-hour days during the late fall of 2011, The Jesuit Post founders prepared for a January launch. Sam Sawyer, a former software coder, was assigned to make the backend functionality of the website work, and Paddy Gilger became the site’s inaugural editor-in-chief. The guys had no budget so when they didn’t know how to do something, they watched YouTube videos because, as Sundrup says, “We’re Jesuits, so we do everything on the cheap.” The founders prepared for a “soft launch” of their site and sent a preview link to Jesuit Father Jim Martin, himself a social media guru, author and “resident chaplain” of Comedy Central’s "Colbert Report." Then, exhausted, they went to sleep.
Unbeknownst to TJP, Fr. Martin shared it on Facebook and Twitter, and though the founders expected to have perhaps 15 to 20 people look at their site at its launch, they had 20,000 visitors in the first two days.
Fr. Martin still serves today as chief cheerleader, saying, “The Jesuit Post is one of the best things that U.S. Jesuits have done in the last 10 years. And what's most amazing is that it was done completely by young Jesuits — men still in formation. In the best of our tradition, they saw a need, carefully discerned how to respond, planned well and then acted. In a short amount of time, it's become a terrific resource for anyone interested (even remotely) in Jesuits, in the Church, and in the way that God is at work in the modern world."
In the two years since TJP’s launch, the site has grown tremendously. New content, including podcasts and videos, is uploaded every day, and many of the offerings are silly, goofy or purposely outrageous. Sundrup says, “I expect to be made fun of. I love the YouTube comments — ‘you can’t act,’ and I say, ‘I know, don’t worry about it.’ “
Today, the all-volunteer staff includes upwards of 40 Jesuit contributors. Technology is key to the site’s smooth operation with Jesuits in New York, California, Boston, Brazil, Rome and Spain all using free online services for editorial meetings, story sharing and scheduling.
Perhaps TJP’s moment of glory was their coverage this summer of World Youth Day (WYD) in Rio and the Jesuits’ WYD companion program, MAGIS. In addition to the fact that it was the pope’s first visit to the Americas since his election, TJP was given rare access to interview Father General Adolfo Nicolás, Superior General of the Society of Jesus.
Two years in, Sundrup, Sawyer and Gilger are proud that their little experiment has taken off in ways they couldn’t have imagined when TJP was just a crazy idea from a bunch of Jesuit scholastics. The site today attracts more than 83,000 pageviews per month.
For Sundrup, the basic question is, “How do you engage a generation for whom the question is not what kind of Church are we going to have, but why even bother?
“The frontier is less about proving to young people that the Church matters and more about having complete faith that God is already at work in their lives. We need to listen to what they’re saying to understand how God is already moving them. That’s the frontier, and that’s where The Jesuit Post wants to be.”