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L.A. archbishop reaches out to Catholic students in digital age

Jose Gomez

Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose Gomez during mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles in 2013.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Students have Facebook, and Jesus had the Gospels.

That’s what Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez told students as he sought to make faith as relevant to their lives as social media is.

Gomez made the statement in answer to a student’s question at Immaculate Conception School, where he met with 20 students on Wednesday to host a Google Hangout session in anticipation of next week’s papal visit.

The online chat included students from five other local Catholic schools and St. John’s Seminary. Questions ranged from “Why do you love God?” to the role social media plays in spreading Catholicism.

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The latter question prompted Gomez’s remark about Jesus and Facebook. The Gospels speak to Jesus’ birth, life as a normal person, time he spent with his family and the values he learned, Gomez said.

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Those are also the types of things people can share about their faith on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, he told the students.

It’s an apt analogy as the Catholic Church tries to combat declining enrollments and increasing tuitions in its schools by reaching out to young people on the platforms they know best: social media.

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Social media “is a fantastic way to get them into schools,” Gomez said. “And this is a global church, so it is a good way to talk to everyone.”

Catholic schools could use more students, both in Los Angeles and nationwide. The population of Catholic school students in Los Angeles has decreased from 92,860 in 2005 to 79,712 in 2015, according to the National Catholic Educational Assn. Los Angeles Unified School District enrollment also has declined in recent years.

At the peak of Catholic school attendance in the 1960s, 5 million students nationwide were enrolled in nearly 13,000 schools, said Dale McDonald, director of public policy for the National Catholic Educational Assn. Today, 1.9 million students are enrolled in about 6,600 schools across the country.

Enrollment in Los Angeles Archdiocese schools is among the largest in the nation. Its size would rank it as the fourth-largest public school district in the state, said Kevin Baxter, superintendent of Los Angeles Catholic schools.

Against this backdrop, the church is going digital — and Gomez’s first Google hangout Wednesday represents the church’s latest effort to bolster its online relevance. During the hangout, Baxter unveiled a new website for the area’s Catholic schools. The schools also launched a Twitter handle for the new school year.

“We’re going to have to find a meaningful way to connect with youth, to attract them” to the church and to Catholic schools, said Immaculate Conception Principal Mary Ann Murphy.

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Earlier this year, Gomez appointed auxiliary bishops who are digitally savvy and have experience working with young people. Their archdiocese’s digital presence might also help bring students and money into its schools. Across the country, Catholic schools are revamping their websites and launching online fundraising campaigns, McDonald said.

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The move to digital reflects of the church’s shift as a whole. Los Angeles still has a ways to go to catch up with Pope Francis, who has 7 million Twitter followers and has held multiple Google Hangouts of his own.

sonali.kohli@latimes.com

Twitter: @Sonali_Kohli

Times staff writer Sarah Parvini contributed to this report.

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