For many Chileans who were baptized Catholics but who may not be practicing, the unraveling clerical sexual abuse crisis has become another reason to think that Friedrich Nietzsche was right: God is dead.
Yet for some 10,000 Chilean believers, God is not only alive and well, but he shows up on their phones every day via the popular messaging service WhatsApp.
The success of the initiative suggests that while the abuse scandals may have badly frayed confidence in the institutional church and its leadership, it has not killed off the basic human hunger for faith and community.
Called “The Gospel of the Day,” the free service began five years ago, and though it includes seven priests and mobilizes an entire family, the whole operation is basically a one-woman show, who’s not shy about saying that if it weren’t for the Holy Spirit, she would have thrown the entire thing in the trash more than once.
“It can be frustrating, as people don’t understand that behind this ‘service’ there’s one person who perhaps that day is in the hospital because her son has appendicitis,” she told Crux.
Since it’s an anonymous service, a decision made in part to combat her own curiosity to know who’s on the WhatsApp list, she requested her identity be withheld too.
It all began, she said, when the “Argentine side of the family” began sending her three-minute meditations of the day’s Gospel, all by the same priest. She liked the meditations so much that she began forwarding them to her friends, who in time, invited others to join a “homemade group.”
Out of the blue, however, the priest at one point announced he’d stop sending his meditations.
“Another person, who turned out to be a priest I knew but who I had no idea was on the list, sent me a note in private saying, ‘What are you going to do with all these souls?’” she said.
The two met to talk about it, and “somehow, I ended up agreeing to run it.”
Together, they summoned seven different priests, both diocesan and from various religious orders or movements, including a Jesuit and a priest of Opus Dei.
“This was a bit historic itself, as the clergy in Santiago is as divided as society, and those who belong to one camp don’t really mix with those in the other,” she said.
She sent a message to the original group, saying that a Chilean version of the WhatsApp thread would soon be launched. Some 700 people, most of whom she didn’t know, signed up.
A few months later, Radio Maria Chile decided to broadcast the three-minute meditations and gave her phone number to the audience. In one day, another 2,000 people signed up. This was five years ago, and the service has only grown since then.
She’s changed phones, internet plans and some of the priests have rotated, but only twice she wasn’t able to send the daily meditations, though for a period she “contracted” her daughter to help out.
“It’s the thing I’ve been most faithful to my entire life,” she said. “I mean, other than my husband. But I can avoid my husband for a day if the need arises. If I avoid the Gospel of the Day, I get thousands of messages from people, not all of them understanding, asking ‘Where is it?’”
The smoothness with which the service runs didn’t come without sacrifice, and she said she sometimes feels she receives notes and questions that are way above her paygrade, including things such as “Help me, I’m on the verge of suicide,” or “why did God take my son from me?”
The thornier messages are forwarded to one of the seven priests, who then reach out to the people in question. Other users, however, have less urgent needs but are in equal need of personalized responses, like the “ungrateful old lady behind the user 3603,” who’s become a running joke within the family.
“I have to say, the only thing that has kept me from blocking her are the countless messages of ‘thank you’ we’ve received,” she said. “It’s easy for those who benefit from something to forget, but those two words can have an incredible power when said sincerely.”
“At the end of the day, the human person needs to know they’re useful,” she said. “And if you ask me what helps me continue with this, beyond the Holy Spirit, it’s knowing that for someone it’s useful. The priests themselves tell me that there are people who approach them at the end of Mass to say they recognize their voices from the Gospel of the Day, give them a hug and say ‘thank you, keep at it’.”
The priests introduce themselves in each message, and though the meditations are rooted in the Gospel, they sometimes include a mention of what’s going on outside of WhatsApp: from the clerical abuse crisis to Christmas. In fact, for the past three years, they have offered “Easter Week retreats,” with longer meditations rooted in the mystery of Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection.
Though it’s not intended in any way to replace Mass, for some people it’s become the one contact with the Church or access to a priest. This is the case of at least five nuns who do their ministry in remote villages throughout Latin America and who only have a priest in town once a week.
“This has been, for me, a school in loyalty and fidelity, guided by the Holy Spirit,” the person behind the service said. “In a time of social media, I’ve realized how important personal treatment is. I try to keep my distance, but there’s a lot of need. From the older person who doesn’t know how to add a contact on their phones to the priest who’s in desperate need of feedback because they want to be better preachers.”
“People might not see it, or maybe they don’t understand this service as a part of the Church, but it’s evident that humans need God,” she said. “It’s a lie that God is dead, and for some, he comes through WhatsApp.”