Monday 10 February 2014

Pope Francis on the Digital Age

By John D. O’Brien. S.J.

Credit: L’Osservatore Romano

Recently, Pope Francis issued his first message for World Communications Day (WCD). These statements, which are made every year, are like “state of the union” addresses on our lives in relation to media. Today, we are all denizens of the digital nation. Media technology influences our lives in ways that are dramatic, evolving, and defining. The WCD messages, which are also fairly short, summarize the Church’s most recent reflection on communications. For all who are interested in the intersection of media, theology and spirituality, they are landmark statements, and therefore worth looking at closely.

What many may not know is that World Communications Day was the only annual worldwide annual celebration called for by the Second Vatican Council. The Council Fathers knew that rapid developments in communications were going to be a defining component of modern life, and wanted annual reflection on the topic. It falls on a moveable date each year, always the Sunday before Pentecost. Why then, is the message issued approximately five months earlier? Mostly to give time to publicize its major points and reflect upon them, as well as to honour St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists and writers, on whose non-moveable feast-day the statement is always issued: January 24. Not to complicate things, but the annual theme is announced months before that, on September 29, feast of the archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, the designated patrons of radio. It's a three-point turn that gets us on our way.

From Pope Paul VI until today, then, popes have issued their WCD statements in January. John Paul II issued twenty-six of them; Benedict XVI eight. The Pope Emeritus’s were especially notable, since they coincided with the rise of social media, and new questions about how to integrate new technologies into our lives without sacrificing the general sacramentality of the Catholic ethos. His 2012 message was particularly good, in which he named the necessity of acquiring a personal “eco-system that maintains a just equilibrium between silence, words, images and sounds” in order for authentic communication to take place, a good prescription for a culture becoming highly immersed in the latter three. The Vatican Media Office recently issued a snappy eBook of all Benedict’s WCD messages. 

As his first WCD theme, Francis chose the concept of “encounter”, using the full title “Communications at the service of an authentic culture of encounter”. He continued his predecessors’ balancing act of encouraging the use of media with prudential points to consider. For instance, while stating that the Internet offers occasions for encounter and solidarity, he names the following weakness: that “the speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgement, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression.” Yet we should embrace social media, says the Holy Father, because nonetheless communication is ultimately never a technological but a human achievement. In the face of hyperkinetic virtual connectivity, how do we keep communication human? Echoing Benedict, he writes “we need to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm. This calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen.”


Pope Francis also makes the following points:
  • Communication as the basis of love: “Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God. I like seeing this power of communication as 'neighbourliness'.”
  • Advertising can be a violence: “Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression like that suffered by the man in the parable, who was beaten by robbers and left abandoned on the road.”
  • Social media connections must evolve into real friendships: “It is not enough to be passers-by on the digital highways, simply 'connected'; connections need to grow into true encounters. We cannot live apart, closed in on ourselves. We need to love and to be loved. We need tenderness. Media strategies do not ensure beauty, goodness and truth in communication. The world of media also has to be concerned with humanity, it too is called to show tenderness. The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people.”
  • We must risk being personal: “The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others. Personal engagement is the basis of the trustworthiness of a communicator.” 
In short, Pope Francis is encouraging the Church to engage with all forms of electronic media, including social media like Facebook and Twitter, in order to foster connection between peoples. At the same time, these connections must involve the same dynamic that meaningful face-to-face encounters require: a personal effort to transcend ourselves and be fully present to the other. There is ultimately no substitution for this basic requirement of human friendship.

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