Not too long ago, Fr Sam French deleted his social media accounts and ditched his iPhone. Today he’s reaching more than one million young people a month with viral videos about priesthood and the Catholic faith.
The 30-year-old vocations director for the Diocese of Broken Bay began posting skits and musical memes, reflections and vlogs on TikTok and Instagram in May with just a few dozen followers.
That has now grown to 29,000 on Instagram and 15,000 on TikTok.
Most users of both platforms are aged 18-34 and Fr French wants to reach them with light skits about the church and priesthood, punctuated with more sombre themes, reflections on scripture and direct appeals to young Catholic men to consider priesthood.
In one popular clip, acting the roles of an over-enthusiastic young priest and an elderly woman he swaggers into a house, Ghostbusters theme blaring, to perform an exorcism.
Instead, he sets off the fire alarm with too much incense and drenches a young occupant with holy water.
“If you’d asked me 12 months ago about social media, I would have said it’s toxic and I would still say that today,” Fr French said.
“I think there’s a lot of danger associated with social media, and it probably is a net negative for youth culture and for society.
“But I cannot escape the fact that that’s where young people are. This is basically mission territory.
“I had to grapple with that in my role and it wasn’t something I was super conscious of before, but when I was put into this role I had to pray about how to approach young people. “Of course, going personally to the parishes is the principal avenue, but secondary to that is to go where I can be seen and to get the message out more broadly.”
While he knows that a TikTok video is never going to be a place of deep encounter pointing young people to God, Fr French is happy with at least interrupting the “doomscroll” phenomenon.
“Just to be present on that platform I think gives an avenue of removing one obstacle between say the priesthood and Gen Z, who we’re obviously looking to at the moment to fill vocations in the future in priesthood, in religious life and in good Christian marriages,” he said.
His motto for his social media ministry comes from the author GK Chesterton.
“He said that humour often gets in under the door while serious is still fumbling with the handle.”
Fr French is also the director of the diocese’s Joseph’s House of discernment for men and says while the online aspect of his vocations ministry in 30 second clips has exploded beyond what he anticipated, it will never replace his face-to-face interaction with the diocese’s young people or become “any more than what it should be.”
With the encouragement of Broken Bay Bishop Anthony Randazzo, his top priority is visiting parishes on the weekends to celebrate Mass, promote priestly vocations and be available for any questions people have about discerning priesthood and life as priest.
Is AI coming for your job? “You are a priest for ever…” Heb 5:6 Thank you to my sister @gem french for the acting support. #catholic #catholicism #foryou #rosary #prayer #jesus #mary #catholicfaith #catholiclife #saints #vocations #priest #discernment #vocation
He says he’s been warmly welcomed by the diocese’s young Catholics and the visits have been very encouraging.
“I also just want to share with all the parishioners the really good news and give thanks for the extraordinary grace that God’s given us, that in the space of seven years in Broken Bay we’ve gone from having zero to three ordinations and seven men in the Seminary of the Good Shepherd, which is pretty much full,” he said.
“That’s a success story that I think people need to hear especially when parishioners have often prayed for decades for vocations.”