Pokémon Go — or no? Parish response mixed

| July 19, 2016 | 0 Comments
Alec Richardson, Brennan Moore, Adam Salman and Blake Koelz hunt Pokemon stops July 14 around the grounds of Assumption Church in St. Louis. CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review

Alec Richardson, Brennan Moore, Adam Salman and Blake Koelz hunt Pokemon stops July 14 around the grounds of Assumption Church in St. Louis. CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review

Behind the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, visitors will find a small courtyard with a bronze statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It’s a place to pray and reflect — or earn “gear” for Pokémon Go, the mobile app that launched July 6 and has quickly surpassed other popular apps, including Twitter, Netflix and Spotify.

The game draws on the longstanding popularity of Pokémon, cartoon monsters that, since their creation in 1995, have spawned video games, trading cards and TV shows. Pokémon Go’s novelty lies in the fact that players — aka “trainers” — use GPS and Google Maps to “catch” Pokémon who — via a mobile device’s screen — appear in real places, including parks, landmarks and Catholic church campuses. The game includes GPS-tagged “Pokéstops” — places where players can amass supplies — and “gyms” — places players can battle their Pokémon against other Pokémon.

As with many churches, the exterior of Good Shepherd in Golden Valley is a Pokémon gym, and its pastor, Father Luke Marquard, has noted Pokémon hunters while on walks. He hasn’t noticed people going in the church to hunt, he said, and would discourage it if he did. The game doesn’t recognize a difference between public and private property.

Overall, Father Marquard is undecided about Pokémon Go. He supposes that something that draws people to a church door offers opportunities for evangelism, but he is also concerned that inviting trainers to hunt Pokémon inside Good Shepherd would detract from the sacredness of the space.

“I’m just worried that we have this generation of kids who could name all the different levels of Pokémon and all the different species or characters, but wouldn’t be able to tell you what the host or the monstrance is,” he said. “I suppose there’s some sense of accomplishment and meaning they get out of the whole thing, and we’d like to say, ‘Listen, you don’t have to look that hard, he’s [Jesus] here. He’s always here. He does your battle for you.”Father Marquard has toyed with downloading the app to explore ways he could leverage it for parish outreach, but for now has decided against it.

Outreach opportunity?

A Pokémon monster named Squirtle as it appears in "augmented reality" in the Cathedral of St. Paul courtyard. Photo taken through the Pokémon Go app camera, Michael Pytleski

A Pokémon monster named Squirtle as it appears in “augmented reality” in the Cathedral of St. Paul courtyard. Photo taken through the Pokémon Go app camera, Michael Pytleski

The Department of Evangelization in the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, has a different take. Earlier this month, it issued a four-page resource guide with FAQs to help parishes respond to the craze and hopefully direct some players to the pews.

“Many parishes are reporting massive increases in foot traffic around their buildings and on their grounds,” the guide stated. “Unlike with other video games, players encounter each other out in their communities — face-to-face.”

Rather than paint the game as an inconvenience to parish life, the document quotes St. John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical, “Redemptoris Missio” (“The Mission of the Redeemer”): “Missionaries . . . must immerse themselves in the cultural milieu of those to whom they are sent, moving beyond their own cultural limitations. Hence they must learn the language of the place in which they work, become familiar with the most important expressions of the local culture, and discover its values through direct experience. Only if they have this kind of awareness will they be able to bring to people the knowledge of the hidden mystery in a credible and fruitful way.”

The resource guide offers five tips for parishes, starting with downloading the game to determine if its campus is part of it, and if so, what parts of the property are likely to be most frequented.

It also advises parishes to engage players with signs or directions; meet players’ needs with restrooms, water or phone recharging; use the game to attract Pokémon to draw more people; and post signs to welcome players and outline expectations for the property’s use.

It includes examples of signage from parishes in Michigan, Maryland and Indiana inviting trainers to text prayer requests, drop in parish offices to speak to a priest, pause to pray for the dead in a cemetery, or ask for Mary’s intercession at a statue of Our Lady.

“The key is to build bridges of trust and break down barriers for those who may not be regular church visitors,” the guide states.

In Brooklyn Center, St. Alphonsus leveraged its position as a Pokémon gym to invite people to its annual Fun Fest July 15-17. “Bring all your friends to a Fun Fest Friday night for laser tag, battle of the bands, great food, ice cream and a Pokémon battle,” read a July 13 post on the parish Facebook page.

At St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony, a July 15 Flocknote to parishioners described the three Pokéstops on the church’s campus and asked players to “proceed reverently.”

Concerns for safety, respect

Not all parishes want to lure Pokémon — or their trainers — to their campuses.

In Shakopee, a July 13 Facebook post from the Shakopee Police Department noted that Sts. Joachim and Anne church and cemetery “are private property and should not be entered to catch Pokémon or visit Pokéstops.” It added: “Please be respectful of this sacred ground.”

Julie Bennett, the parish’s business administrator, said the issue is about respect and safety. Recently, the volunteer curator for the church’s cemetery witnessed several groups of players in the cemetery, some jumping around and looking behind headstones. He told the groups they could get hurt if a piece of a monument were to fall on them.

“They’re heavy monuments,” Bennett said. “We just can’t have the risk.”

While admitting she’s not entirely familiar with the game, Bennett requested that her children, ages 13 and 15, not play it because she’s concerned about potential harm, including predators luring players to dangerous places.

In an effort to maintain respect for private, sacred property, Epiphany in Coon Rapids has requested that its church campus be removed as a Pokémon Go destination.

Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, meanwhile, has endorsed its evangelical opportunities via Twitter. “#PokemonGo is drawing people to churches. Great! What an excellent opportunity to share the love and mercy of Jesus in this Year of Mercy!” he tweeted July 12.

His diocese’s resource guide notes that the game “is fostering relationship-building between parents and children, neighbors and even among strangers.”

That’s proven true for Sean McDonough, assistant chancellor for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who hunts Pokémon with his 11-year-old son, William.

The pair have gone out three or four times in their Stillwater neighborhood, which includes Sean’s childhood home and St. Michael’s parish. Its streets are walkable and bikeable, he said, and he’s enjoyed seeing the neighborhood in a different way, through the game’s bird’s eye view.

He acknowledged that he looks to William for direction. “There’s a sort of humbling aspect of the game, where I have to turn to him and say, ‘How do I do this, what’s next?’” McDonough said. “He’s at that age where I haven’t had to ask him that a lot.”

McDonough chuckled about a moment when he and William were walking near his childhood home — two blocks from their house — and he reminisced aloud about racing his brothers home after Mass at St. Michael.

Then he noticed that William wasn’t listening; he was looking at his screen for Pokémon.

McDonough’s overall Pokémon Go experience has been positive, he said, although he has safety concerns about his son looking at his phone and not the street. Game time is also restricted by William’s regular summer screen-time limits.

“The real miracle is when your son says, ‘Hey dad, let’s go out and do this,’” said McDonough, a parishioner of St. Peter Claver in St. Paul. “I really like the outdoor and doing-this-together aspect of it.”

Jessica Trygstad contributed to this story.


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