McGrath Institute receives Lilly Endowment grant for promoting parish vitality through better communications

By Anna Bradley

Church Communications Ecology programChurch Communications Ecology program

Notre Dame, IN — The McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame has been awarded $1 million by Lilly Endowment Inc. to help strengthen parish congregations in the digital age. The Church Communications Ecology program will help parish leaders to evaluate the cultural shifts wrought by digital technologies and develop responses that contribute to the vitality of parish communities.

The Church Communications Ecology program will assist Church leaders in the work of strengthening parish communities in a digital culture where social disruption, distraction, and disconnection threaten established institutions and traditions. The program’s “communications ecology” approach will give parishes a framework to create healthy environments where ministry, teaching, and outreach can thrive.

“The sacraments which form the life and being of the parish are all, in their own way, communications of the Word who continues to make Himself flesh,” said John Cavadini, McGrath-Cavadini Director of the McGrath Institute. “Our communications strategy must be conformed to this primal and ongoing communication if our parishes are to thrive in the flesh instead of languishing in abstraction and virtual reality.”

Brett Robinson has been named academic director of the Church Communications Ecology program at the institute. He has a PhD from the University of Georgia and conducts research at the intersection of technology, culture, and Catholicism. Robinson has served on the faculty at Notre Dame and Saint Vincent College and has been the director of communications for the McGrath Institute for the last five years.

“The revitalization of Catholic parishes requires that we pay attention to the forms of communication that lead to deeper communion,” said Robinson. “An awareness of the ways in which media and technology shape our psychology and social dynamics must be taken into account when thinking about how to enhance Catholic identity, trust, and vitality at the parish level.” 

In July 2019, the McGrath Institute was the recipient of a planning grant from Lilly Endowment. The planning grant supported a summer symposium for more than 30 theologians and Church leaders to consider the impact of technological change on congregational vitality. 

Beginning in fall 2020, the newly-established Church Communications Ecology program at Notre Dame will invite leadership cohorts from select dioceses to join a learning community of their peers to focus on the question of how to enhance parish vitality through closer attention to communication ethics and practices in the digital age. The program will culminate with a summer conference at Notre Dame where parish leaders will share their findings with their learning community peers. 

The Church Communications Ecology program is the third McGrath Institute project to receive Lilly Endowment funding since 2016. The Bishop D’Arcy Program in Priestly Renewal provides a weeklong retreat for diocesan priests on the Notre Dame campus in the summer. The Strong Foundations for Pastoral Leaders Program began in 2018 and supports pastoral leaders as they seek to balance the early years of their career in ministry with familial and financial commitments. 

Contact: Brett Robinson, director of communications, McGrath Institute for Church Life, 574-631-6109,