This Friday (30 June) marks World Social Media Day, a chance to recognise the huge impact that social media has had on the world and the way people communicate. Like many of us, Melbourne singer and podcaster Alyssa Agius has something of a love–hate relationship with social media. When she was first approached to be interviewed for this story, she says she was amused by the timing. ‘I was laughing with my friends because the day I got your email, I was just saying I need to have a break from social media,’ she says.

Despite being ‘a bit over social media at the moment’, though, she ‘can see the incredible positives in it as well’, both in terms of the opportunities it has brought for her in her music career and as a powerful tool for connecting with people in her work as Outreach Program Coordinator with FRG Ministry, the global media and outreach Apostolate founded by Fr Rob Galea.

As part of this role, Alyssa hosts the Catholic Influencers podcast, along with co-hosts Fr Rob and Justine Cumbo. The podcast features weekly conversations about the Sunday gospel and looks at a range of life topics from a Catholic perspective. With a worldwide listenership through the OSV Podcasts network, their reach continues to grow. ‘The stats just keep going higher and higher,’ says Alyssa.

Alyssa describes the Catholic Influencers target audience as ‘people who maybe have had an encounter with the faith before, but maybe have lost touch with that’. It’s an audience that social media plays an important role in connecting with, she says. ‘We try and use social media by just using language that they can relate with,’ she says’ ‘to hook them in and to [encourage them to] want to learn more.’

She thinks the success of the podcast can partly be attributed to the dynamic between the hosts—‘three of us in all different walks of life’ who ‘all have this shared vision of faith. I like to say that we make theology accessible to the everyday person. We try to take people to that deeper level.’

FRG Ministry also does a lot of work with teachers. This, she explains, is where the name Catholic Influencers came from: their goal is ‘to influence the influencers’.

‘If we want to reach those young people, which we do, it’s our goal to evangelise and make disciples of everybody,’ she says.

We have to be there—the Church as a whole has to be there [on social media]—because that’s where they are.

Alyssa leads a very busy life, combining her role with FRG Ministry with a professional music career. She and her husband Daniel Agius have been performing live music together since they first connected on social media many years ago as high-school students—back when it was MySpace, not Instagram.

‘Music was something that I always grew up with,’ she says. Daniel and Alyssa went on to form a band, which, with a lot of hard work, became a successful business, providing live music at weddings and large corporate events. ‘We get to travel around doing that, which we love,’ she says.

Alyssa and Daniel performing with their act Un-Limited. Photo supplied.

But while music has always been a big part of Alyssa’s life, it’s not the only thing. ‘Faith is obviously something that’s really important to me as well.’

Alyssa was raised in an Italian Catholic family, attending Catholic primary and secondary schools and completing her sacraments, but her family, she says, weren’t really ‘practising Catholics’ and only occasionally went to Mass.

The opportunity to go to World Youth Day when she was in Year 12 changed that. ‘It was there that I guess the faith was sparked in me and I wanted to take it a little bit more seriously,’ she says. But even as her relationship with God deepened, her music and her faith remained ‘separate parts of my life’. Publicly sharing her faith has not been something she’s really done ‘until the last few years’.

Through attending Catholic conferences, Alyssa got to know Fr Rob, singing with him at a number of events. This friendship, and a growing conviction that she was being called to something more, led to her role with FRG Ministry.

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Alyssa with Catholic Influencers podcast co-hosts Fr Rob Galea and Justine Cumbo. Photo supplied.

Social media has also been an invaluable tool for Alyssa in her music career. Working more in ‘the covers and events scene’, Alyssa says social media has been vital in helping her and Daniel target their audience. For that reason they ‘try to keep pretty active’.

‘I think today more than ever—especially since lockdown, when that’s kind of all we had—it’s very important if you want to be successful in business,’ she says. ‘You do have to have a presence.’

Social media has only really become a focus for her in the last 5–10 years though. Despite the emergence of new platforms like TikTok, she still mostly just uses Facebook and Instagram. Even then, she struggles to find the right balance. And she recognises this can be especially challenging for young people.

‘I’m very happy I didn’t have social media through high school,’ she says. She tries to set limits on her use of social media, because otherwise ‘you’d be there forever’. She says, ‘Like anything, it can definitely become an addiction.’

Alyssa tries to make a habit of getting off social media during Lent and says taking breaks at other times can also be helpful, ‘especially if you’re discerning something big in your life, like if you just want to cut the noise, and God’s voice is the voice you want to listen to.’

At first, she thought it would be hard, ‘but after you get over that couple of days, it’s actually really amazing. And you find you actually don’t miss much.’ She’s been especially struck by the sense of peace she’s felt. ‘When we’re looking at everyone else’s highlight reels on social media, it’s very easy to fall into that comparison trap’, becoming jealous of ‘what people are doing and how exciting that is, and there’s that whole thing that sometimes people aren’t always completely truthful. It can be very fake.’

Even in the faith realm, she says, where there are ‘people all over the world posting amazing stuff about the liturgical calendar or different things about the faith’, there are still pitfalls to be aware of.

One thing to be mindful of is that time scrolling—even learning about God—does not replace time with God. So you can always be like, “One more video, one more video, then I’ll pray.” But you’ve got to be really disciplined.

‘I think it’s important to just be mindful of how much we’re consuming and how much we’re letting it affect us.’

Despite these reservations, Alyssa is grateful for many of the opportunities that social media opens up. ‘I love connecting with people all over the world,’ she says. ‘And especially in the faith, just seeing other people who have similar interests to you. It’s like, “Oh, I’m not the only one in this.”’

She also loves it when some of her social media followers introduce themselves at live events—‘I get such a kick out of that’—and she’s inspired by a lot of the Christian content she discovers in her feeds: ‘all of those videos, and people are so creative now, explaining little bits of Church teaching in a minute, or just this incredible quote that you never would have heard before.’

It has also become a great way to witness to her faith. She posts about the Catholic Influencers podcast on her personal social media accounts, for instance, ‘not in a way that shoves it down people’s throats, but I don’t hide the fact that I’m on the podcast. My following is quite broad because I am in such a secular music industry, so I am mindful sometimes of how far I’d go either way. But I was at a show a few weeks ago and one of the backing singers said to me, “Oh, my wife listens to your podcast’, and I just totally didn’t expect that.’

Another singer contacted Alyssa when she was asked to sing at a funeral. ‘This is a girl in a secular industry just saying, “I feel like you would be the one who would know the ins and outs of a Catholic funeral.” And if I wasn’t active on social media saying that I am into the faith, that wouldn’t happen. It was nice to know that people felt like they could come to me with those questions.’

Along with the benefits, though, Alyssa acknowledges there are responsibilities that go with having a social media profile:

If you’re going to be an influencer, especially in the Catholic scene, it’s your responsibility to lead people to goodness, to lead people on their own encounter with God.

Authenticity is also important. ‘If you want to reach other people, just be you—that’s the biggest thing,’ she says. ‘If you’ve got this perfectly curated feed and you’re showing this incredible morning routine and this fitness routine—I mean, I’m not saying you need to air your dirty laundry on there as well—but also just don’t portray that life is perfect. I think you have to be discerning about what you share and what you do not share.’

When controversial issues arise in the Church, and ‘everyone just hops on board and it’s really crazy’, she often feels the need to step back and perhaps take another approach. ‘You should be discerning about whether you add to the noise or not, just being mindful of your particular audience as well.’

She uses the example of sharing a daily post when she’s on pilgrimage. ‘I feel like that works really well with my audience. And then I get people come to my gig and maybe say, “Oh, I loved your posts from the Holy Land. I really felt like I was on pilgrimage with you, and I went back to Mass this weekend and I hadn’t been to Mass in maybe a few years, but your post really inspired me to do that.” I feel that’s probably a more fruitful thing than me maybe adding to the noise of a big, crazy debate that’s happening on social media.’

Alyssa speaking at the Sisterhood National Catholic Women’s Conference in NSW in March. Photo supplied.

While she acknowledges the powerful influence of algorithms on how we each experience social media, she feels there are nevertheless ways to make our engagement less superficial and more meaningful.

The first thing, she says, is to learn about how the algorithms work and to be mindful of that as you are browsing your feeds. She also thinks it’s important to be discerning about who you follow.

If someone is ‘feeding truth and beauty into your life, absolutely keep following,’ she says. ‘But if you find it’s causing you to be jealous or if it’s flowing on with negativity, maybe consider whether you’re following them or not. And if you do find someone who you really connect with, look at who they follow as well, because that’s a good way of finding new people that you may not have found before.’

Pointing out that ‘there are no celebrities in heaven’, Alyssa says, ‘I think a lot of people can get very caught up in being like a celebrity, but I think an important thing [to remember] is how many followers you have doesn’t equal sainthood. It’s taking note of: Is this person I’m following helping me grow closer to God, and inspiring me in my faith, or are they not?

God’s given each person this individual call to sainthood. And it’s our job to listen and be discerning of what that is and say yes to it.