Social media & technology have been coming up recently in several conversations with friends of mine. The other night at a group of us were talking about youth and smart phones. I mentioned I’d been doing some substitute teaching lately, and experienced a little culture shock in seeing how nearly every high school student and middle school student had a smart phone and was allowed to use them at school. I remember having to read a book quietly after finishing a quiz – these kids were allowed to cruise facebook and twitter instead. How are we teaching them to digest reading material? Are we destroying their attention spans?
We also talked about smart phones at the Vatican – like in this photo that went viral. Is this a spectacular new way of experiencing the Vatican? At the Relevant Radio Christ Brings Hope Dinner, Drew Mariani told a story about using the Relevant Radio app to listen to a live English translation of the Pope’s Audience while standing in St. Peter’s Square. That’s an amazing use of technology that can enhance our experience. But I also wonder if anyone in that audience in the photo was actually spiritually and wholly present to that moment – or were they experiencing life through a screen? Last month at our ACNM Meet-Up, we were also talking about social media and the Church – no surprise there! Our conversation resonated with something I’ve been reflecting on for a while, so here it is!
This is really the follow-up to a post I wrote back in January of 2013, over two years ago: Vatican II & Social Communication. Now I’d like to go deeper in to theme of how we as Catholics are called to be different in how we use social & new media. As citizens of the 21st century and participants in our culture, we are called to consciously decide how to relate to and use technology and modern communication, including social media. We cannot let ourselves be carried unreflectively along with the trends, and we also cannot stick our heads in the sand. We are called to learn how to see God’s will in all the fantastic developments of our times, and orient these developments towards God.
This is a huge challenge, and one that we are each called to answer to in our daily lives. It is beautiful how the Church embraces these modern developments and also challenges us to be different than the world in how we relate to them as tools of communication. As I mentioned in that first post from 2013, even back during Vatican II, the Church was attentive to the effect of media, referring to the existing radio and television media and also envisioning that the horizon would expand. The message Inter Mirifica from Vatican II declares a vision for the greater unity and brotherhood that media makes possible, and also the huge responsibility we have as Christians:
“Suddenly, and in proportion with these changes, the responsibilities of the People of God will enormously increase. Never before have they been offered such opportunities. It will be possible to ensure that the media promote the advancement of the whole human race…It will be possible to strengthen the brotherhood of man.” Part IV, Paragraphs 181 & 182, p 347-348 (Please see extended quote on responsibility at end of blog).
Recently, on the 48th World Communications Day, Pope Francis had this message to share with us about modern media:
“This is something truly good, a gift from God. This is not to say that certain problems do not exist. 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. The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests. The world of communications can help us either to expand our knowledge or to lose our bearings. The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbors, from those closest to us. We should not overlook the fact that those who for whatever reason lack access to social media run the risk of being left behind.”
Pope Francis touches on the essential dynamic I want to reflect on today, which is a clue towards our calling to be different: the interplay between the external and internal. When we take in so much external information at such a rapid speed, as Pope Francis says, we are unable to interiorly digest it. We can think of what happens when we eat too fast – indigestion. Our body gets clogged up and uncomfortable. The same can happen with our inner life. Our mind, heart and soul can become over-saturated. What is the effect? We do not absorb what is important, and we are unable to think reflectively and objectively about what we have taken in. This is how the “mass-man” is created – I’ll talk about that more in a minute.
Pope Francis also touches on how this external-internal dynamic effects our relationships. We can become over-connected in an external way, through facebook, Twitter, WhatsAp, etc, that gives us the illusion of relationship. But interiorly we are empty. We do not really know anything about the interior experience of the other – but because we saw the photo of their vacation on facebook, we feel like we do, like we’ve already heard the story. This robs us of the chance for real connection, for real sharing and listening to each other. It also robs the person who writes the post of the chance of sharing from their inner experience – they also feel, since they have posted it on facebook, that they have already told their story. What about those friends who aren’t on facebook? What about those grandparents who aren’t linked to our digital photobuckets? We can slowly lose the habit of personal emails, real printed photos sent in the mail (or at least attached to a personal email), and actual phone calls to our loved ones – simply because we feel like we’ve already told our stories sufficiently on our facebook and blogs.
If we continue to let ourselves be flooded externally and do not reflect with God each day on the information we take in, and if we allow ourselves to be carried by the current of media opinion without engaging our free will, we will slowly become a “mass-man.” That is the observation that Fr Joseph Kentenich drew from his work with families in the US over 60 years ago:
“The collective man is the mass-man, the radio-man, the television-man, who has lost the nucleus of his personality, that, without a will, is like the leaves on the tree that let themselves be carried all over the place by the opinions around him, by the rhythm of the life of the times, and by the commands of his leaders and dictators. He lives from external impressions and is not capable of elaborating them interiorly. What he says and think is a repeated copy of the press, or simple imitation depending upon what the radio and television have already said before. The pure collective man has been totally stripped of the nobility of his dignity and of his true liberty.” ~ Fr Kentenich (4th Homily of Homilies for the Marian Year, given in Milwaukee, WI 1954; translation from Spanish by myself)
And there he is: without God, depersonalized, with morals or tradition, without soul and split in two within himself and within his world.
I have often found myself sucked into this dynamic and in need of interior reflection. Fr Joseph Kentenich tells us that the greatest helper on this journey of modern man, as he learns to live in an organic, whole and freely human way in this modern, tech-savvy and fast past world is the simple woman from Nazareth, the Virgin Mary. What would she know about Twitter and facebook? How can she help? Because she is the model of perfect harmony between the natural and supernatural, and the supreme example of how to contemplate our daily life with God. In the same talk quoted about, Fr Kentenich says:
“In an exemplary way, she has lived the motto, “Omnia uni” – everything for the one and only God! She has given herself entirely and totally to God. We know that she was created in the vision of Christ and that she put all that she was and had entirely at the disposal of Christ and His work. Her greatness lies totally in the supernatural world. To the man without God, She is opposed as the entirely divinized man. In this all flows together: the Immaculate Conception and divine Maternity, her absence of sin and her Assumption, her role as Co-Redemptress, as Mediator and her real dignity. ”
“Thus, she opposes the depersonalized and demoralized man, as a free personality, rooted in God and intertwined with the divine order. She makes us aware that God esteems and protects our liberty, and that He also does not want to sanctify nor save the world without our collaboration. As the members cannot exist without the head, so neither can the head exist nor be fruitful without the members….The collective man is the man without soul. He doesn’t have a heart or spirit. To him is opposed Mary as the Mother of kindness and of mercy. The modern man, internally unhinged and divided, that in spite of external neighborship atrophies in a great interior distance from his neighbor, sees in her the ideal of a man at peace in every sense: at peace with himself, at peace with God, at peace with the world.”
How is that for a calling?? That is how we are different as Christians in the way we relate to and consume new media and social media! As Mary, we seek to be rooted in God, interiorly at peace and centered in Him as we swim through the dense information streams of our times. As Mary, we seek to be authentically interiorly connected also to others in real, warm human relationships that last! And also, as Mary, we face all challenges with hope and child-like questions. What can this mean for me? What is God asking of me through this happening in my life? It is not becoming to Christians to freak-out about modern trends (even as we may experience some ‘culture shock’) and hide away from the current culture in fear or indifference. Neither is it becoming to jump into the deep end without asking those child-like questions of God and trusting that He will answer. We are called to walk with hope and with prudence and discernment in this 21st century!
And in case you still need some more motivation…I’ll leave you with this last quote from the talk:
“Mary is called the Victress of all heresies. She has manifested this brilliantly over the course of the centuries. And thus she will crush as well the heresies of contemporary collectivism. She does it through the ideal of her own personality and through the mediation of all graces, that are oriented to the formation of great and strong personalities, that will have the value of swimming against the current in imitation of Her, and that are willing to give themselves entirely to God for his work of redemption, and that have the spirit of even letting himself be crucified for his ideal. Through experience we know that She forms such personalities and takes them by the hand as instruments, to the struggle of the spirits, to the arena of life: in the family and at work, in the streets and plazas, in political life and in the government salons. This is how the words “Behold your Mother!” want to be interpreted today.”
More quotes from Inter Mirifica:
“What is certain is that soon, due to the latest technological developments ..sounds, images and the message they bear will soon be reaching men, simultaneously, all over the world…So it will be possible for all peoples to learn more of each other as a result of this real dialogue. They can then work together for the unity of mankind and the establishment of peace. Suddenly, and in proportion with these changes, the responsibilities of the People of God will enormously increase. Never before have they been offered such opportunities. It will be possible to ensure that the media promote the advancement of the whole human race…It will be possible to strengthen the brotherhood of man.” Part IV, Paragraphs 181 & 182, p 347-348
8. Since public opinion exercises the greatest power and authority today in every sphere of life, both private and public, every member of society must fulfill the demands of justice and charity in this area. As a result, all must strive, through these media as well, to form and spread sound public opinion.
9. All who, of their own free choice, make use of these media of communications as readers, viewers or listeners have special obligations. For a proper choice demands that they fully favor those presentations that are outstanding for their moral goodness, their knowledge and their artistic or technical merit. They ought, however, to avoid those that may be a cause or occasion of spiritual harm to themselves, or that can lead others into danger through base example, or that hinder desirable presentations and promote those that are evil. To patronize such presentations, in most instances, would merely reward those who use these media only for profit.