For this entry, I'd like to muse about the Catholic Church and communications. More specifically, how do we communicate faith to a secular world that is slowly losing the art of elaborate and refined communication of complex ideas (which are needed to communicate the faith!), and that instead is more interested in “sound bites” and the 20 second summary of a complex issue?
Those of us who who have come to believe that Christ’s salvific love for us brings all people to new life and restores us to God’s light seem to be almost boxed out in this world and, as many agnostics and atheists would claim, have become irrelevant.
In light of this, I would like to share my assessment of promising and discouraging facets of the Church's presence in cyberspace.
My ‘Theo-bud’ Lauren – a good friend, and classmate in theology at Regis College – told me she was concerned that the Catholic Church could not appropriate and apply the right tools to communicate the Word of God to the sound-bite generation. I reminded her that this is simply not true: Not only are there many committed Catholics who are blogging, Facebooking and Tweeting, but as we all know, even Pope Benedict XVI is using Twitter these days. The success of this new ministry has been so positive that the Vatican is now looking to open a new digital journalism program.
I told Lauren that it’s also via “sound bites” of encyclicals on Facebook that I’ve managed to reach out to a few people who are non-practising, people who were intrigued by the beauty of the idea expressed in these sentences. If I can impact people that way, imagine someone who is even more in the public sphere!
As good as it is that the Pope is tweeting, one may get discouraged at the amount of “hate responses” his messages get. It seems that many of the million or so followers are not open to Pope Benedict's message or to enter into dialogue with him. Rather, their purpose is to insult, attack, mock and lash out at the Church. In a way, we should rejoice at this. Jesus has often told us that being his followers would bring us mocking, hate and persecution (Matthew 5: 11-12; 10:22; Acts 5:41).
This does help a little. Yet, I remain saddened. It’s not just the Pope’s twitter account (@Pontifex) that is filled with hateful messages. The Internet, in general, often becomes a medium filled with hate and intolerance. Just look at any random YouTube video. The amount of explicatives and insults expressed at the maker of the video is nothing short of disturbing. The internet can indeed be a rather bleak place, with very little room for dialogue, and it may seem that there is little hope that we may be successful at evangelizing.
In light of the positive, and in spite of what is frustrating, there are many reasons to hope. There are people working for a culture of respect and dialogue online and we need to partake in and celebrate in this culture. Most importantly, for me, is that one of the pioneers for this culture is Fr. James Martin, S.J. Those of you who are familiar with Jesuits will perhaps know and love this man, and his wonderful books. He keeps a very active presence on Facebook. He has a tendency of placing contentious Catholic news items on his page, and encourages a civilized, intelligent, and respectful conversation among his Facebook friends around the issue.
The reason I admire him so much is that he doesn’t just encourage this respectful conversation. He enforces it. He deletes any post that is disrespectful, and constantly reminds those commenting that mutual respect is of the essence, and anyone who fails to respect differing opinions will be removed from the discussion. He has a great desire to bridge the gap between conservatives and liberals in the Church, and has understood that the internet can be a great tool for this.
So, the onus is on us. We can either shy away from this tool, label it as “the devil’s work” (as some of my religious friends have) and shun it in order to strive for our own brand of spiritual perfection (whatever that means). Or we can work with it, consider it a great asset in our efforts to evangelize in the 21st century and beyond, and embrace the good, the bad, the ugly, but also the spiritual and inspiring insights that people can offer through this medium.