Young people flock to the convent in search of Pokémon

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

Global Sisters Report has enjoyed a partnership with A Nun’s Life Ministry since our site went live in April 2014. Srs. Maxine Kollasch and Julie Vieira share audio clips every week from their popular podcasts and now take turns writing a monthly column. Drawing on their experiences of online presence and using a lens of Scripture, they each will explore how social media offers new ways of witnessing Gospel values.


The call of God is mysterious. Sometimes the Spirit whispers gently in our hearts. Sometimes God's invitation is extended through people or events in our life. Sometimes it is through the heartfelt search for Pikachu.

Pikachu is one of many characters in the latest mobile app sensation, "Pokémon Go." Released July 6, "Pokémon Go" uses augmented-reality technology to engage players with the game, other players, and the physical world around them.

Sarah E. Needleman, a reporter on the video game industry for The Wall Street Journal, describes the game like this:

In "Pokémon Go," players use their phones to capture virtual creatures that appear to be hovering in their immediate vicinity in the real world. Advancing in the game involves collecting items such as "Poké balls," which ... can be found at "PokéStops." Players use captured creatures to fight other players at "gyms."

The game is intended to get players out and about, walking around their neighborhood and meeting other players at these hubs.

PokéStops and gyms are located on a digital map of public places such as libraries, churches and other landmarks, Needleman notes. Players need not enter any buildings at all in order to play the game. One of the telltale signs of Pokémon players is that they stare intently at their phones so as to zero in on their targets. As the Pokémon tagline says, "Gotta catch 'em all."

Sisters and nuns are finding that the list of public "Pokémon Go" places often includes the campuses of their own motherhouses, monasteries, convents, universities and schools. As a result, "Pokémon Go" has meant an increase in visitors to these locations. Is this an outreach opportunity? Of course!

At the same time, however, there are some very real issues about respect, privacy, liability and safety.

While the "Pokémon Go" game is new, the issues surrounding the public's presence on properties of Catholic sisters and nuns are not. What is different is that "Pokémon Go" is intensifying the issues, luring players with the hope of capturing an elusive Wigglytuff or Geodude (two of hundreds of Pokémon creatures) or scoring Razz Berries (items the creatures eat that make them easier to catch) or perhaps even an egg (an item containing a creature that will hatch after the player walks a certain number of miles).

Here in Toledo, Ohio, there was a recent news report about two enthusiasts who were on the search to capture Pokémon after hours in the Toledo Zoo. The players themselves, however, were the ones captured: Police apprehended them and charged them with criminal trespass.

These two PokéStops are on the Sisters of St. Francis' campus in Sylvania, Ohio. (Courtesy of Julie Vieira)

At A Nun's Life, we have encountered stories from sisters and staff finding players on their campuses during the day and at night. There are a variety of responses to this, such as requesting players to only visit during daylight hours and to be respectful of such areas as cemeteries and chapels.

Even with these concerns, the fact is that young people are visiting campuses where they can encounter religious life. In what ways might a key feature of the game — interaction with other people and the surrounding environment — be used by congregations to engage with young people about mission, ministry and membership? What would it be like if a visiting player happened to run into a Catholic sister or nun?

Shortly after the game was released, a candidate in my congregation was playing "Pokémon Go" on campus and encountered a number of other players.

"I could tell by the way they were holding their phones that they were out catching Pokémon or at one of the PokéStops on our motherhouse campus," she explained. "Because we were all playing, we instantly had something in common, which made it easy to start a conversation. We even helped each other strategize!"

Catholic sisters and nuns are already considering the opportunity that "Pokémon Go" presents in terms of engaging with young people. For many, it's a matter of hospitality, a hallmark of religious life. In this case, hospitality may mean learning some of the language of this new experience in young people's lives. For those of us with smartphones, this could involve downloading the app and giving it a try. We might read up on Pokémon online or in print. There are overviews and guides everywhere right now!

While it may not be personally meaningful to us — although if you are like this Pokénun, your gamer heart is delighted! — it is a way to enter into young people's world and be with them.

Susan Oxley, coordinator of Communicators for Women Religious, expresses a sentiment that we at A Nun's Life have heard from several people: "It is amazing to have kids or young adults showing up at convents looking for Pokémon. What an opportunity!" she says. "Bake them some cookies. Have sisters volunteer to be greeters and introduce themselves to the kids. Invite them inside! Offer them a tour of the motherhouse and/or grounds."

By offering a welcoming presence to "Pokémon Go" players, there is a chance to connect with people we might not otherwise encounter. The Spirit does indeed move in mysterious ways. Who knows where a conversation could lead! To paraphrase the Pokémon slogan, "God calls 'em all."

[Julie Vieira is a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Michigan, and co-founder of A Nun's Life Ministry, which was founded in 2006.]