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Artificial intelligence helps Filipino Catholics nourish faith

Priests and lay people can benefit by adopting AI technology for their spiritual growth, says retired Redemptorist priest
Catholic women take a selfie as they attend a mass in observance of Ash Wednesday at a church in Manila on Feb. 14. Some priests and lay people in the Philippines are turning to artificial intelligence to study the word of God and enrich themselves spiritually.

Catholic women take a selfie as they attend a mass in observance of Ash Wednesday at a church in Manila on Feb. 14. Some priests and lay people in the Philippines are turning to artificial intelligence to study the word of God and enrich themselves spiritually. (Photo by JAM STA ROSA / AFP)

Published: May 15, 2024 11:32 AM GMT
Updated: May 16, 2024 01:54 AM GMT

Michael Bulawan is a busy man. When he cannot attend church due to his hectic work schedule, the 37-year-old father of three manages to catch up with the word of God through artificial intelligence.

“When I am doing my job and also need to do my spiritual study, I get help from AI to explain some Bible passages,” he says.

Bulawan works as a public high school teacher on weekdays and attends classes for his post-graduate studies in Inopacan, a town in the central Philippines.

His work and studies often interfere with his Sunday Mass obligation, so Bulawan finds comfort in AI. He also regularly visits religious websites to nourish his faith.

The same goes for Aiene Molina, another 37-year-old schoolteacher from Santa Fe in Leyte province.

When she cannot find time for church activities due to work, the devout Catholic taps into her phone, prompting the popular AI site Chat GPT to help her understand Bible verses.

Molina says she is “thankful for AI’s presence” in her life, whether it is for translations, analysis, or reflections on scriptural entries.

Father Amado Picardal, a retired Redemptorist priest, said there is a lot of talk nowadays about generative AI and suggested Catholics “learn to enjoy the benefits it brings but also be aware of the risks and dangers it brings.”

He has just started to learn how to use AI and had posted a few gospel reflections generated through it, said Picardal, a former executive secretary of Basic Ecclesial Communities under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.

The 69-year-old hermit priest said he felt joy and curiosity using AI’s power and even felt proud while posting his initial AI-generated gospel thoughts on social media on May 12.

“I am encouraging my friends to use it to assist them in understanding the Gospel,” said Picardal.

But the priest, who has been in Church ministry for the past 43 years, felt one needs a degree of “open-mindedness and caution” because there are risks associated with AI.

“It is a tool which can be used for good and destruction,” Picardal told UCA News in an online interview. “How to adapt it in our daily lives depends on us.”

He cannot fathom right away how his experiments with AI will turn out.

“I have just started,” he said while adding he was yet to get feedback for the AI-generated gospel reflections posted on his Facebook account.

AI-based homilies

Picardal believes that both the faithful and Church workers can benefit by adopting AI technology for their spiritual growth.

“I am advocating for priests to use reflections and commentaries generated with the help of AI as a basis for their homilies. Lay Catholics should also learn to use AI to understand scriptures and the Church’s teachings,” he explained.

One of his personal favorites is the AI’s assistance in translating English text into local languages like Cebuano and Tagalog and vice versa.

Once he gets the translations done, Picardal enthusiastically shares them on his Facebook for the benefit of others.

He also gets an image to accompany the translation or a reflection through Copilot-GPT4, a chatbot launched by Microsoft in February 2023.

Picardal also vouches for the quality of the photorealistic images generated within seconds to match any gospel topic.

For this reason, he sees AI technology as “an effective tool for evangelization and catechesis.”

He is sure it will democratize knowledge and remove much dependence on priests and experts.

“However, it cannot replace the priest or the experts,” clarified Picardal.

AI can assist in the ministry of the Catholic Church, whether spiritual guidance or administrative tasks, by enabling digital platforms for evangelization, spiritual guidance, e-learning, translations, and data analytics, he said.

AI-powered chatbots can answer questions about Catholicism, guide individuals through prayer, and offer daily scripture reflections. At the same time, AI-driven apps can provide tailored prayer, devotions, meditation prompts, and scripture readings to help deepen one’s spiritual life.

AI can also offer access to courses and resources on Catholic theology, spirituality, and Church history, making education more accessible. AI algorithms can analyze social media engagement and website traffic to create content promoting Catholic values, he explained.

“These tools can empower the Church to reach a wider audience, provide more personalized spiritual experiences, and streamline operations, aligning with Catholic teachings on ethical technology use,” he said.

Pitfalls of AI

Pope Francis has admitted that AI “is radically affecting the world of information and communication, and through it, certain foundations of life in society.”

“These changes affect everyone,” the pontiff said in his message for the 2024 World Day of Social Communications, whose theme was: “Artificial Intelligence and the Wisdom of the Heart: Towards a Fully Human Communication.”

However, Pope Francis cautioned the people on AI’s pitfalls, saying: “At this time in history, which risks becoming rich in technology and poor in humanity, our reflections must begin with the human heart.”

The pope, whose deepfake photo in a puffer jacket was circulated on social media last year, warned that technology can become “perverse when it distorts our relationship with others and with reality.”

Molina agrees. She said that the application of AI by humans will decide whether it's beneficial or detrimental to humans.

The schoolteacher is now encouraging her two children, aged 17 and 14, to use AI to study the scriptures when she cannot answer their queries.

“It helps us all a lot, especially in making things clearer, grasping the deeper meaning of some biblical terms and characters,” Molina says.

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