Canadian-Iraqi singer Ali Gatie’s What If I Told You I Love You is one of many 60-second soundtracks underlying some of Tik Tok’s most viral videos.
In one such video, Nigerian Catholic priest, Rev. Fr. James Nwachukwu Anyaegbu is dancing to the song, a remixed version comprising ad-libs and a midtempo beat similar to the original track.
However, in the duration of the video, Fr. Anyaegbu’s chasuble colour changes four times each time with a teaching in a brief text design showing what seasons and for what occasions they are worn. White at Christmas and Easter; Purple at Lent; Green at what the church calls Ordinary Time and Red at Pentecost.
It is one of his most viral videos. The comments are filled with Catholics and non-Catholics, proud, and educated on an aspect of the church so small yet elusive, entertained by his dancing.
At six, Fr. Anyaegbu already knew he wanted to become a Catholic priest. At 11, he joined a minor seminary in Abia state, about four hours from where he was born in Anambra. It will take another 12 years of study and nomadic living before he was ordained a priest in 2013.
Just after his second anniversary as a priest, in 2015, he was asked to move to the highlands of Scotland somewhere 100 miles away from Aberdeen. Together with another Nigerian priest, Fr. Max Nwosu, Fr. Anyaegbu was sent to Scotland due to a shortage of Catholic priests in the country, a subject that was in focus in a BBC documentary about both priests released earlier this year and titled Our Fathers.
Fr. Anyaegbu is not new to social media but picked interest in the wildly popular four-year old platform during the pandemic lockdown in April.
In the barrage of lip-synching, comedy skits, and twerking videos, he did not see the church strongly represented (the #catholic turns up around 500 million videos). Since April when he opened his Tik Tok account, Fr. James has gathered nearly 26,000 followers and most of his more popular videos include those where he explains or highlights some aspect of Catholic dogma.
“In all these, I saw people’s appreciation for them. My motivation was the followership. I went from like zero [followers] to thousands,” Fr. Anyaegbu tells TechCabal.
As most content creators can attest to, creating content for Tik Tok can be demanding. Filming takes long hours, with plenty repetitions to get the synch, lighting and composition right.
Oftentimes, his colleague, Fr. Nwosu, also acts as a production assistant. Tools like iMovie, InShot, which he says is “quite lovely”, Canva and Garage Band help complete the production process.
“There’s a video we’ve recorded three to four times and it hasn’t come out yet. We recorded in the church, it didn’t come out well, we recorded another one outside the church, it did not come out well,” he explains laughing.
Both thought an outfit change might help but after filming the second part of the video using a setting different from the first that they got right, the whole thing may have to be trashed again. With about seven parishes under their care and a largely elderly congregation, it can be tasking.
But Fr. Anyaegbu considers the digital space a vital tool in reaching a younger population of faithful especially at a time when the church, particularly in the West, is experiencing a decline.
In Europe, the rise of atheism and agnosticism has all but secularised most parts of the region while in regions like Latin America and the Middle East, a polytheist approach to religion continues to impact the numbers of the Catholic faithful.
This has not come without any counteraction.
While masses and other religious services, as with most other faiths and denominations, went online, Fr. Anyaegbu says streaming same on Tik Tok attracted a significant amount of abuse and online trolling.
“The first time [I streamed a mass], I received lots of abuse from people asking, what is this doing here?” he says. Some asked why Tik Tok did not take down the videos that typically live on the app for 24 hours after the Livestream ends.
Some of the trolling are targeted at specific content. In one video where he reiterates the practice of genuflecting when one enters into a Catholic church, a non-Catholic criticizes it as idol worship.
“Ignorance is to blame,” he says about the online trolling.
Across other platforms like YouTube, some of the trolling has been more race-based than a difference of religious ideologies.
“There was one who used to call us Black negroes, nigger,” he explains, “The person typed those in Russian. One of our followers picked it up, translated it and sent it to us.”
As more and more people converge online, social media platforms like Tik Tok remain complicit in easily driving polarization around ideological differences in politics, religion, culture, identity, and sexuality on a scale that we haven’t experienced before now. But Fr. Anyaegbu says as more young people increasingly spend long hours infinitely scrolling, his goal is to bring the church to them where they are: watch a lip-synch video one minute and spend the next listening to a “message of hope”.
As the Vicar of the Church in the late 20th Century, the late John Paul II was the first Catholic leader to witness the unfolding social media landscape and was tasked with communicating the Church’s stance on the developing technologies at the time.
In his message in 2002 for the 36th World Communications Day, an annual Catholic celebration that reflects on modern and developing means of social communication with respect to evangelism, John Paul II equates the Internet with the ancient Roman public space where “the best and the worst of human nature was on display”.
“The Church approaches this new medium with realism and confidence. Like other communications media, it is a means, not an end in itself,” he wrote.
In 2005, he warned that “its misuse can do untold harm, giving rise to misunderstanding, prejudice and even conflict.” We’ve seen that play out in Asia where Facebook was central to the prejudice and othering that led to the killing of thousands of Rohingya Muslims and the displacement of nearly a million in 2017.
Nonetheless, both social media and the Internet have helped over the years, make the Vatican less veiled. Despite not having an email address or having used the Internet, the current Vicar, Pope Francis’ 18.8 million-followers Twitter account has become a platform for faithful (and non-faithful) to stay informed, receive prayers, and gain insights into the mind of one whom some consider one of the church’s more liberal Vicars.
During pandemic lockdowns in Italy and most parts of the world, social media live streams and other such platforms were in use for masses and other religious observations from the Vatican to millions of parishes around the world where people could no longer gather.
Fr. Anyaegbu says the period also created an awareness to people who otherwise may have seen the Internet and technology development as an adversary to religious ideals and practices. He has since founded an online forum that will allow young Catholic faithful share their doubts and challenges with practicing their faith and find support and encouragement in the online community.