“Social Networks: portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelization”

Pope Benedict XVI has released his message for the 47th annual World Communications Day.  This is a special day that was initiated by the Second Vatican Council so that “the faithful are instructed in their responsibilities” in the use of modern means of social communications (Inter Mirifica #18).

The theme this year is about the use of social media. As some of you may have noticed, this has been a particular passion of mine. I was also honoured to be asked to present on this topic at the recent CCO Rise Up conference in Saskatoon.

Pope Benedict hits this one out of the park!  The full message can be found at pccs.va.

Here are some of my initial thoughts. This part particularly resonated with me:

I wish to consider the development of digital social networks which are helping to create a new “agora”, an open public square in which people share ideas, information and opinions, and in which new relationships and forms of community can come into being.

Jesus commanded his disciples to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28.19), and his first followers took him at his word.  Filled with the Holy Spirit, they went to continents of the known world.  Pope Benedict has referred to the internet as the new “digital continent.”  It therefore is a natural conclusion that these new technologies and communities should be an integral part of the ministry of the Church — a new “agora” or a new Areopagus (Acts 17).  We must encounter the culture where it is, which today increasingly includes the online realm.

To that end, the Pope writes about the need to build and strengthen real relationships online, which is the place that “is part of the daily experience of many people, especially the young.”

However, he notes that online communication is often lacking in real dialogue. In my experience, online communications can often become downright nasty and overly emotional. Further, I can’t count how many times I’ve seen a post, comment, or story about Christianity which showcases some fundamental misunderstanding about the faith or about the practices of the Church, etc. And so, he writes:

The social media thus need the commitment of all who are conscious of the value of dialogue, reasoned debate and logical argumentation; of people who strive to cultivate forms of discourse and expression which appeal to the noblest aspirations of those engaged in the communication process. Dialogue and debate can also flourish and grow when we converse with and take seriously people whose ideas are different from our own.

We need to engage and dialogue with people where they are, while remembering to be inclusive of others. There can be a real tendency to only seek out those who think like us, but that doesn’t further real dialogue. It’s just preaching to the choir. Welcoming others who don’t think like me can be a real challenge. It’s uncomfortable. But sharing the good news of Jesus is not always comfortable. And let’s remember a sense of perspective here: many Christians died (and continue to do so) for sharing the gospel. We are concerned with getting negative feedback in an online forum.

What’s up with that?

Regarding the methods used to share the gospel online, Pope Benedict encourages communicating in ways that engage “the imagination and the affectivity of those we wish to invite to an encounter with the mystery of God’s love.” Or, as I’ve heard Archbishop Richard Smith put it (paraphrased), our communications need to be beautiful because our faith is beautiful.

Ultimately, our eyes need to always be fixed upon Jesus, because he alone is the source of all good:

It is natural for those who have faith to desire to share it, respectfully and tactfully, with those they meet in the digital forum. Ultimately, however, if our efforts to share the Gospel bring forth good fruit, it is always because of the power of the word of God itself to touch hearts, prior to any of our own efforts. Trust in the power of God’s work must always be greater than any confidence we place in human means. In the digital environment, too, where it is easy for heated and divisive voices to be raised and where sensationalism can at times prevail, we are called to attentive discernment. Let us recall in this regard that Elijah recognized the voice of God not in the great and strong wind, not in the earthquake or the fire, but in “a still, small voice” (1 Kg 19:11-12). We need to trust in the fact that the basic human desire to love and to be loved, and to find meaning and truth – a desire which God himself has placed in the heart of every man and woman – keeps our contemporaries ever open to what Blessed Cardinal Newman called the “kindly light” of faith.

Or, as I put it in my CCO Rise Up presentation, “Be prayerful. Be joyful. Be authentic.”

Read the entire message here.

Also check out Brandon Vogt’s thoughts. He’s much more eloquent than I!