Stop me if you've heard this one before.
Son of immigrants in Silicon Valley. Dumpster dives for parts and builds his own first computer. Starts his first company while in middle school. Goes to college to study computer science and becomes -- a Jesuit priest.
OK, didn't see that coming. But somewhere on the path to his quintessential valley success story, the Rev. Robert Ballecer got the idea that tech was awesome and all, but that maybe there was something else. Not something instead, but something in addition.
He says all that thinking began when he started to get to know the Catholic priests at Bellarmine College Preparatory and Santa Clara University.
"There was something there," Ballecer, 38, says. "I saw in the people something that was satisfied. They were happy. They had purpose. They liked what they were doing."
Yeah, but what about that love of gadgets and gizmos and the digital world that is miraculous in its own blessed way? Was this guy really going to spend his days scribbling with a quill pen and growing grapes to stomp into sacred wine?
Wait. Wrong priests. Wrong century, for that matter.
"We're not what you think we are," Ballecer says, and by "you" he means those who haven't given a lot of thought to what priests do today and how they do it. "We're not an ancient religion. We're a religion that is trying to make a difference in today's culture."
All of which is how Ballecer came to be the Digital Jesuit. (One fan named him Friar Tech, a way better name, but one Ballecer says is more appropriate for a Franciscan priest.) See, he never gave up his love for all things digital. Ballecer, who grew up in Fremont and served at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in San Jose, is a regular on TWiT.tv, an Internet channel devoted to tech talk and reviews. He's all over YouTube. (Even made a game attempt at Gangnam Style, because, how can you be on YouTube without joining the dance craze?) He's on Facebook (of course). And Twitter (see Facebook). And Google+.
His work is eclectic -- video reports from Interop and the Consumer Electronics Show; a review of a high-tech toilet; tweets joking about the Brazilian government's campaign to encourage citizens to save water by urinating in the shower. (His take: Go for it.)
And while some might find it unconventional for a man in clerical collar to be talking toilets or bathroom habits or imitating a South Korean rap sensation, Ballecer is hardly subversive. In fact, those above Ballecer encourage his digital outreach. (OK, no direct word from the highest of the higher authorities, but his earthly bosses seem to be down with it.)
"St. Ignatius Loyola, our founder, his big thing was seeking God in all things, finding God in all things," says the Rev. Thomas Smolich, president of the Jesuit Conference of the United States. "He really believed that we find God in the world we live in. Our world is now digital."
It's why Ballecer was named director of the Center for Apostolic Technology and why for the past three years he's served in Washington, D.C., as the director of national vocation promotion, which you can think of as the Jesuits' chief headhunter. In his vocation role, Ballecer oversees the Jesuits' efforts to encourage young men to consider the priesthood.
"Robert has this kind of combination of tech savvy and geek willingness to learn anything new and be up there in front of people," Smolich says, "which I think engages people to say, 'Oh, if he can be doing this, maybe I can do it too.' "
And yes, when seeking to connect with young men, who are fixated on screens 24/7, it doesn't hurt to be where they will at least see you.
Ballecer says the idea behind his digital work is not to preach (which must be odd for a preacher), but instead to be who he is -- a real person with many interests. As social networking matures, everyone from Fortune 500 companies to the cupcake shop down the street has learned that new networks can't be used simply as another channel to deliver sales pitches.
"If people know that your Twitter account is just an advertising tool for you," Ballecer says, "they will ignore it."
But if you allow yourself to be a real human, if you talk about peeing in the shower, which in fairness was a while ago now, viewers and followers will relate. Maybe that, in turn, gets some young men thinking differently about what it means to be a priest.
And from there, in a few cases, Ballecer says, that might lead to a deeper conversation between someone who hears a calling and a Jesuit who answered one.
Contact Mike Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.
THE DIGITAL JESUIT
The Rev. Robert Ballecer has earned the nickname the Digital Jesuit because of his deep knowledge of technology and his high profile on social networks and the Internet.
Here are a few place to find Ballecer on the Web:
YouTube toilet review: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOiux8B4iqo
YouTube Gangnam Style: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AY5TfPMg6ug