Tweeting Good

There’s a Bronco who can find hope, authenticity, God, and, yes, cat pictures online. We talk with @padreSJ.

There are many long nights in Rome for Robert R. Ballecer, S.J. ’96, M.Div. ’05. Sometimes called the Digital Jesuit, the high-tech and social-media-savvy priest logs into our video call at 11 p.m. his time by saying, “I’ve got another three or four hours of work to do before I go to bed.” To his more than 36,700 followers on Twitter alone, @padresj (as he’s handled on that platform) wants to show that priests can be part of the broader cultural conversation—whether by earning several degrees, nerding out over new technologies, making unboxing videos, or training others to “do” social media well. To the Jesuits he works with, he hopes they see that technology can be a tool to share their authentic selves and the Jesuit worldview.

Ballecer chatted with Santa Clara Magazine about the good on the internet, being real online, the road from being a regular Bay Area kid to working at the Vatican, and the stray cats he feeds there. Because it’s the internet, of course there are cats. #VatiCats.

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Leslie Griffy, managing editor, Santa Clara Magazine: I wanted to start with your job title. When I hear “assistant for new evangelization for the Jesuits,” well, it sounds like maybe you are in charge of digital marketing for the order.

Robert Ballecer, S.J.: We had to give it a name—because it’s a job. But you can ignore that. What it really means is that for the Jesuit Curia (the community of Jesuits), I’m responsible for what touches the internet, from strategy to implementation. I create content; reach out to partners. I work with Father General (the leader of the Jesuits) to make sure that we are pushing in the right way on the things he would like to emphasize. It is sort of a catch-all phrase.

SCM: I’ve been following you on Twitter, and on YouTube and elsewhere. The things you put out in the world, they just feel so authentic—the stray cats you help care for, the unboxing videos. Is this really your world?

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Ballecer: Yes, very much so. And that’s on purpose. I control a lot of different accounts for my job. There’s the Society of Jesus official Instagram, the official Facebook, the official Twitter. With those accounts, there’s very little wiggle room.

The personal accounts of individual Jesuits, however, do have certain cachet. But they only have that when they are authentic. The millennial generation knows when they are being sold. They can see it, and they know what it looks like when you create an influencer account. What we want is the engagement, human to human, through the digital world. People want to interact with people. And that’s what my personal accounts do. I think you see it in accounts like Jim Martin, S.J. (@James-MartinSJ, who tweets about issues of the day to his more than 300,000 followers).

This is how we act in person. There is no persona there.

SCM: So you want people online to connect with actual Jesuits, to learn about their life and their work?

Ballecer: Absolutely. We are our primary resource. It is not money or contacts. It is our men of competence that we have built in the Society of Jesus. We have some brilliant people who are very good at what they do. It goes to our very core. You’ve probably heard the phrase “men astutely trained.” We have a bioethicist at Georgetown who is one of the preeminent members of his field, for example. (Myles Sheehan, S.J. is director of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center.)

I worked with some of the people who made foundational parts of the internet. And, when I worked with a network in the Bay Area called This Week in Tech, I did it in my clerics. I always identify myself as Fr. Robert. I’m always looking for the moment of “I didn’t know a priest could do that.” That means I’ve broken the stereotype. It means people are thinking, “I can be a person of faith but I’m also a politician, a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer.”

It’s been very empowering to have Jesuits like Martin, Tom Reese, S.J. (@ThomasReeseSJ, an American journalist and Markkula Center distinguished visiting scholar), and Jboy Gonzales, S.J. (@jboygonzalessj, a Filipino vlogger) really pushing boundaries.

SCM: So how is Rome for a place to do that kind of work?

Ballecer: It’s really good. Look, I’ve served all over the world. This is an important mission. I am a Bay Area boy and I love being back in San Francisco whenever I can. I would love to be back at Santa Clara, because I miss that campus. But this is where I have been asked to be, and so I will stay until it is time for me to go.

SCM: How is it that you went from Bay Area kid dumpster diving for computer parts to a business-owning college student to the Jesuits?

Ballecer: I went to Bellarmine (College Prep), so I thought I knew what Jesuits were. I was even asked if I wanted to be a Jesuit by Ralph J. Drendel, S.J., and I laughed. I thought, “Why would I want to do that? That’s just silly.”

When I was at Santa Clara, I met men like David Marcotte, John Privett, and Leo Hombach, who was in campus ministry. He was the one who really pushed me.

Around that time, I was basically in business for myself; I was wheeling and dealing. I was doing all of the things I always thought I would be doing. And then there came a point, about halfway through my first year, where I had everything I wanted. But it wasn’t exciting. I thought, yeah, I can do it, but is this what I want to do with the rest of my life?

Being at Santa Clara gave me this time to reflect on what I wanted. And I found out that this is what I wanted: I wanted to continue being educated. I didn’t want to stop learning. And I wanted to do engineering. I wanted to be in the world of technology. But, I didn’t want that to be the defining thing about me. It was Leo who said, “It kind of sounds like you want to be a Jesuit.” And again, I laughed. He said, “No. What do you think a Jesuit is?”

And I can honestly say that I was ashamed. I didn’t have a good answer. I thought, well, they are old priests. And so I started reading about the history of the Society of Jesus. I got this moment of epiphany where I said, “I didn’t know a priest could do that.” I realized this is the thing that combines that yearning for more with all of the learning I want to do in an organization that has already done this for half a millennia.

SCM: Here’s a Jesuit tech question: Can you really find God in all things? Like, can you find God on Twitter?

Ballecer: Yes. That’s it. No pause. I’ll say yes. And I understand why some people may say no. Let’s be honest, Twitter can be an absolute cesspool. In fact, I wrote a bot that I have been using to automatically block trolls and suspected bots. I think that was part of why I enjoy Twitter. I block thousands of accounts. I never see the filth. I use Twitter to follow people who have interesting lives and who I would like to know more about. I have met people—in the real world—who I’ve had engagements with on Twitter, who are authentic. Here’s the thing: If you are willing to be vulnerable and authentic, you will attract people who are vulnerable and authentic. And that leads to something wonderful.

SCM: You use this digital space to connect in really healthy ways. But, as you noted, the internet can be a dark place and, well, the world can seem scary these days. What is giving you hope on social media right now?

Ballecer: You know, you’re right. There’s a lot of anxiety right now. I see a lot of people who don’t know what the future will look like, who have been inside, essentially, for 18 months of uncertainty.

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But I have a different take on it. Because I’m hearing from Father General and I’m hearing from Pope Francis—you know, just outside my window I can see the Vatican—and I’m hearing them say the same thing.

So many people are trying to get back to the way things were without asking if they were happy with the way they were. And, just like I needed that time on campus to ask really important questions, I am now hoping people will stop, slow down, and ask the honest question: What do I want?

Not just in the United States but across the world, there are people saying, “This can’t be it.” That’s what gives me hope.

SCM: I cannot let you go without a cat question. The litter of feral cats you care for, the VatiCats as you call them, and share often on Twitter, are so sweet. How are they?

Ballecer: Oh, they are wonderful! I won’t say it’s the best part of my day, but it is definitely a highlight of every day. I want that moment where one of them jumps in my lap. But if I get that, then I will probably never leave Rome because I’ll have a new cat.

Follow Fr. Ballecer on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and pretty much everywhere else by searching for @padresj.

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