Local Catholics create community through podcasts

BRAINTREE -- In this age when technology offers a plethora of ways to communicate, many content creators have turned to podcasting as a way to exchange opinions or information. Among them are many Catholics -- from parents to college students, lay leaders to clergy and religious -- trying to help listeners live out their faith and feel connected to a community.

South Shore native Olivia Colombo was a freshman at Boston College when she had the idea to start a podcast. She already had some familiarity with the medium, having studied broadcast journalism and recorded vlogs about Catholic events in high school. She had even done some work for CatholicTV after they saw her content on YouTube.

She pitched her idea to CatholicTV president, Bishop Robert Reed, who said the network could host and produce the show.

"I wanted to create a podcast that captured some of the conversations that I was having with people in my life who I found to be inspiring, especially during the beginning of college," Colombo, now a senior and dual degree student in BC's school of social work, said in a Jan. 11 interview.

On the podcast, she interviewed people she identified as "changemakers," starting within the BC community and broadening that scope over time. She named the show To the Heights, referring to both the college and a quote from Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, the patron of podcasters.

"He was a young person who made change in his own community, which is very much the message of TTH," Colombo explained.

In addition to running her own show, Colombo also helped develop CatholicTV's podcast network, Grexly.com, which became the platform for several shows created by people with ties to CatholicTV.

Colombo said she thinks podcasting creates a more dedicated and invested community of followers. Unlike scrolling through social media feeds showing many different people's content, listening to a podcast requires giving an extended amount of time and attention to a single content creator.

"It's special to get that one spot in someone's day," Colombo said.

She did not realize how far To the Heights reached, until people began to recognize her when she visited a parish or attended a conference, which she said "fostered really special interactions."

"When you're podcasting, it feels like you're talking into a void, and just publishing something that maybe a few people will listen to, but actually getting to meet people in the Catholic community, or having people write into our email account to discuss or comment on episodes, is special and makes it real," she said.

While already a growing medium, the popularity of podcasts increased even more during the coronavirus pandemic, as people looked for ways to foster community despite staying in physical isolation.

In the early months of the pandemic, Michael Lavigne, assistant secretary of the archdiocese's Secretariat for Evangelization and Discipleship, approached his wife Lori with an idea. The archdiocese was trying to think of ways to reach families and had proposed the creation of a podcast. Would she consider making one with him?

Lori Lavigne joked that she had never listened to a podcast before. Nevertheless, she agreed to try it, so long as it did not take time away from her part-time work or homeschooling their eight children.

In June 2020, the Lavignes launched their weekly podcast, Raising 8, in which they talk about parenting and family life, speaking from their experiences over 17 years of marriage. They have covered topics as basic as bedtime routines and taking toddlers to Mass, as well as sacraments, vocations, and how to talk to children about different Church teachings.

"The simple premise is Lori and I trying to talk about topics that are of interest to other parents who are trying to raise kids in the Christian faith," Michael Lavigne said.

Lori Lavigne said it turned out to be "a fun way for us to interact with each other while also sharing tidbits and wisdom and jokes."

In addition to the podcast itself, the Lavignes have also made a website, raising8.net, and a Facebook page, where they sometimes post short videos or record live episodes.

Occasionally, they have dedicated a series of episodes to a particular topic. This past Advent, they read and reflected on the Gospel passage for the upcoming Sunday Mass. They are now thinking of starting a video series with a similar format, making Raising 8 something of a multimedia project.

The making of Raising 8 bore some unexpected results for the Lavignes. People they had lost touch with reached out to them after listening to the podcast. One young married couple who heard the Lavignes talk about the importance of caring for one's marriage were inspired to go on a date night.

Lori Lavigne said the podcast is not so much a job as a kind of ministry.

"It's nice to see some fruit from it," she said.

For the Daughters of St. Paul, also known as the "media nuns," podcasting is just one of the many types of media that they employ in their mission to spread the gospel through the most effective means of communication.

"We can't imagine St. Paul would be alive today and not engage this kind of platform," Sister Julie Marie Benedicta Turner told The Pilot.

Some Daughters of St. Paul have created podcasts in the past, usually focusing on a particular sister's area of expertise. But in 2020, they saw an opportunity to make a podcast that would represent their community as a whole. In November of that year they launched The Daughters' Project, a podcast recorded at their motherhouse in Jamaica Plain.

"We call it The Daughters' Project because it's really and truly a project coming out of the heart of our being Daughters of St. Paul but also the fact that all of our listeners are children of God," Sister Julie Benedicta said.

Sister Julie Benedicta and Sister Orianne Pietra Rene Dyck are the current hosts of the podcast, which is now in its fourth season. Each season has been different, as various sisters have taken turns hosting and focused on different topics, many of which are related to their new or upcoming publications.

"It's an attempt to pull all of the other things that we're doing in our apostolate together in a way that kind of condenses it and simplifies it and makes it available to everyone," Sister Julie Benedicta said.

As "media apostles," the Daughters of St. Paul are well versed in different methods of communication. But podcasts offer certain benefits that other media do not.

Sister Julie Benedicta said she loves that podcasts can be "customizable" and "particularly intimate." If a podcast is boring, she can skip ahead, and if she hears something particularly moving, she can play that part over again. It is also private, unlike turning on the family television or carrying a book on the bus.

"There's something really beautiful and personal about the medium," she said.

Sister Orianne Pietra Rene noted that, unlike books, podcasts can be consumed anywhere and leave the listener's hands free to do other tasks, like driving or household chores.

The Daughters of St. Paul see the impact of their podcast through the messages and comments they receive on various media platforms. Listeners can also support their ministry through the online creator payment system Patreon, and in turn receive more opportunities to engage with their content.

"It's been beautiful to see the impact that the podcast has had on so many people, of different ages, men and women, Catholics and non-Catholics," Sister Orianne Pietra Rene said.

To the Heights, Raising 8, and The Daughters' Project are available on most podcast platforms.