Technology has brought to humanity the ability to communicate with more people with greater ease and speed than ever before. Communication is no longer limited to the written word or symbols on a static medium like stone or paper. Modern communication also involves pictures and sound and even live video conferencing and takes place almost instantaneously. Magazines and newspapers are now hyperlinked to related material online and webpages are published by almost every organization and many individuals. The Vatican has entered the world of social media with gusto, launching a Facebook page and an online news portal that can be downloaded as an app. The papal Twitter account, begun by Pope Francis’ predecessor, Benedict XVI, now boasts more than 3.5 million followers. Last year, the Vatican even offered indulgences to those who followed the Catholic World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro via Twitter.
Saint Teresa of Avila was quick to adopt the social media of her day as evidenced by the hundreds of letters authored by her that still exist. She communicated with her relatives, friends and acquaintances about a wide variety of subjects ranging from mundane business letters about providing food and shelter for the sisters to sublime revelations she sent to her directors and confessors about the extraordinary divine communications she received from God. Teresa was well aware of the dangers that could accompany social exchange from her experience at the Incarnation Convent in Avila before her conversion but she did not let fear deter her from her duty or from sharing her experience of God with others. Here are reflections by three popes about or that could be applied to the Internet and the Church.
Pope Benedict XVI wrote this wonderful letter in 2011:
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
On the occasion of the 45th World Day of Social Communications, I would like to share some reflections that are motivated by a phenomenon characteristic of our age: the emergence of the internet as a network for communication. It is an ever more commonly held opinion that, just as the Industrial Revolution in its day brought about a profound transformation in society by the modifications it introduced into the cycles of production and the lives of workers, so today the radical changes taking place in communications are guiding significant cultural and social developments. The new technologies are not only changing the way we communicate, but communication itself, so much so that it could be said that we are living through a period of vast cultural transformation. This means of spreading information and knowledge is giving birth to a new way of learning and thinking, with unprecedented opportunities for establishing relationships and building fellowship.
New horizons are now open that were until recently unimaginable; they stir our wonder at the possibilities offered by these new media and, at the same time, urgently demand a serious reflection on the significance of communication in the digital age. This is particularly evident when we are confronted with the extraordinary potential of the internet and the complexity of its uses. As with every other fruit of human ingenuity, the new communications technologies must be placed at the service of the integral good of the individual and of the whole of humanity. If used wisely, they can contribute to the satisfaction of the desire for meaning, truth and unity which remain the most profound aspirations of each human being.
In the digital world, transmitting information increasingly means making it known within a social network where knowledge is shared in the context of personal exchanges. The clear distinction between the producer and consumer of information is relativized and communication appears not only as an exchange of data, but also as a form of sharing. This dynamic has contributed to a new appreciation of communication itself, which is seen first of all as dialogue, exchange, solidarity and the creation of positive relations. On the other hand, this is contrasted with the limits typical of digital communication: the one-sidedness of the interaction, the tendency to communicate only some parts of one’s interior world, the risk of constructing a false image of oneself, which can become a form of self-indulgence.
Young people in particular are experiencing this change in communication, with all the anxieties, challenges and creativity typical of those open with enthusiasm and curiosity to new experiences in life. Their ever greater involvement in the public digital forum, created by the so-called social networks, helps to establish new forms of interpersonal relations, influences self-awareness and therefore inevitably poses questions not only of how to act properly, but also about the authenticity of one’s own being. Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world. In the search for sharing, for “friends”, there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.
The new technologies allow people to meet each other beyond the confines of space and of their own culture, creating in this way an entirely new world of potential friendships. This is a great opportunity, but it also requires greater attention to and awareness of possible risks. Who is my “neighbour” in this new world? Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life? Is there is a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world “other” than the one in which we live? Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships which are truly deep and lasting? It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.
In the digital age too, everyone is confronted by the need for authenticity and reflection. Besides, the dynamic inherent in the social networks demonstrates that a person is always involved in what he or she communicates. When people exchange information, they are already sharing themselves, their view of the world, their hopes, their ideals. It follows that there exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world: this takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others. To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preferences and judgements that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically. Furthermore, it is also true in the digital world that a message cannot be proclaimed without a consistent witness on the part of the one who proclaims it. In these new circumstances and with these new forms of expression, Christian are once again called to offer a response to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is within them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).
The task of witnessing to the Gospel in the digital era calls for everyone to be particularly attentive to the aspects of that message which can challenge some of the ways of thinking typical of the web. First of all, we must be aware that the truth which we long to share does not derive its worth from its “popularity” or from the amount of attention it receives. We must make it known in its integrity, instead of seeking to make it acceptable or diluting it. It must become daily nourishment and not a fleeting attraction. The truth of the Gospel is not something to be consumed or used superficially; rather it is a gift that calls for a free response. Even when it is proclaimed in the virtual space of the web, the Gospel demands to be incarnated in the real world and linked to the real faces of our brothers and sisters, those with whom we share our daily lives. Direct human relations always remain fundamental for the transmission of the faith!
I would like then to invite Christians, confidently and with an informed and responsible creativity, to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible. This is not simply to satisfy the desire to be present, but because this network is an integral part of human life. The web is contributing to the development of new and more complex intellectual and spiritual horizons, new forms of shared awareness. In this field too we are called to proclaim our faith that Christ is God, the Saviour of humanity and of history, the one in whom all things find their fulfilment (cf. Eph 1:10). The proclamation of the Gospel requires a communication which is at once respectful and sensitive, which stimulates the heart and moves the conscience; one which reflects the example of the risen Jesus when he joined the disciples on the way to Emmaus (cf. Lk 24:13-35). By his approach to them, his dialogue with them, his way of gently drawing forth what was in their heart, they were led gradually to an understanding of the mystery.
In the final analysis, the truth of Christ is the full and authentic response to that human desire for relationship, communion and meaning which is reflected in the immense popularity of social networks. Believers who bear witness to their most profound convictions greatly help prevent the web from becoming an instrument which depersonalizes people, attempts to manipulate them emotionally or allows those who are powerful to monopolize the opinions of others. On the contrary, believers encourage everyone to keep alive the eternal human questions which testify to our desire for transcendence and our longing for authentic forms of life, truly worthy of being lived. It is precisely this uniquely human spiritual yearning which inspires our quest for truth and for communion and which impels us to communicate with integrity and honesty.
I pray that God’s Spirit will accompany you and enlighten you always, and I cordially impart my blessing to all of you, that you may be true heralds and witnesses of the Gospel. “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mk 16:15).
From the Vatican, 24 January 2013, Feast of Saint Francis de Sales.
Recently Pope Francis reiterated some of these thoughts. “The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity, a network not of wires but of people,” said Pope Francis, adding: “The Internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity.” However, in a speech marking the Church’s World Communications Day, the pope warned that the Internet also had the power to “isolate” people from their neighbors. It may sometimes be a haven for pornographers, bullies and hateful extremists, but the Internet received an official blessing from Pope Francis, when he called it “a gift from God.”
In December, 2013: The theme “Proclaiming Christ in the digital age” for the 26th Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Laity comes from the realization that the world of digital communication has profoundly changed the landscape of the cultural and social life of our planet in a very short time. Cyberspace is a new frontier. Like the new frontiers of other times, this one too is full of the interplay of danger and promise. For the Church the new world of cyberspace is a summons to the great adventure of using its potential to proclaim the Gospel message to people who increasingly turn to the world of cyberspace as a window on the world. The certain fact that emerges from the magisterium is that a Christian cannot avoid the challenge of dealing with innovations in communications.
Several topics were considered in the presentation at this Plenary Assembly.
- Space/time has become space/speed. A crisis in the concept of time has diminished the capacity to plan ahead, and deterritorialization has challenged traditional communities and has created new ones focused on destiny or on feelings.
- The advent of digital technologies is generating psycho-cognitive mutations that are actually laying the foundations for a new anthropology which must be properly governed by those who are part of what will be the last pre-digital generation.
- The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world, but is part of the daily experience of many people. For this reason, as long as we say that we must stop relating via the internet in order to have real live relationships, then we are confirming our generation’s schizophrenia regarding the internet.
Recently Pope Francis, aware of some of the same dangers that Teresa identified about communicating in the parlor of the Incarnation, has reflected on their magnification in the digital age: “The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgment, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression,” he said. Too much time spent surfing the web, he added, “can help us either to expand our knowledge or to lose our bearings.” The desire to be online, he said, “can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbors, from those closest to us.”
Francis articulated a solution that might be found in a Carmelite formation manual. “We need to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm,” Francis said. “This calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen.” He also called the Internet a good place to talk about God. “Draining some of the venom and hostility that can be found on the web would help bring about real understanding of the world,” he said. “If we are genuinely attentive in listening to others, we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and come to appreciate the richness of human experience as manifested in different cultures and traditions.” The “digital highway” is just another “street teeming with people who are often hurting; men and women looking for salvation or hope.” He suggested the church use the Internet to “reawaken the insuppressible questions of the heart about the sense of existence” and point users to Christ.
Many religious communities have comprehensive websites. Carmelites have, to some extent, established a presence on the Internet. The O.Carm.’s have some very good websites and the OCD Generalate has a website: http://www.carmelitaniscalzi.com/ with some news and info about the order. The Washington province, USA has a website with little news; mostly links: http://www.ocdwashprov.com/ . Many communities of Carmelites are online but few OCD friars; mostly nuns. There are some OCDS communities that have a website and some are very comprehensive. Some of the above also have twitter and facebook pages.
If an OCDS community has the resources and the ability, there is a challenge and a need for them to join the voices of the Vatican and the OCD Generalate to bring light into the darkness that fills most of cyberspace. While most of the Internet is devoted to commerce and entertainment, evil is being propagated and sin is being glorified in countless areas. On the other hand there are more and more sites dedicated to bringing a wholesome message of Faith, Hope and Charity to the browsers of humanity. While a site or an app may be intended for a specific audience to share their faith and support one another, the soul searching for deeper meaning can stumble upon this treasure, guided by the Holy Spirit, and receive the grace to grow closer to God and experience a conversion of the heart.
At some point, a group of people, moved by what they find online, may be called by God to establish an online community. These do exist in other religious orders and there is a movement called The New Monasticism that is a movement in Protestantism where members meet online via Skype and which has grown so that now members are forming chapters within their local communities that also gather to pray together. It does not seem like too much of a stretch to imagine OCDS communities that meet this way. There are former members of local communities who have moved away and cannot find a community to join and there are people who would like to join a community but cannot find one and have no alternative, now that isolated members are no longer allowed.
There are a variety of social media applications that allow people to communicate with one another in various formats. They are used by families, groups of friends, and total strangers to stay in touch. The two most popular are Facebook and Twitter. It is sometimes said that Facebook is used to stay in touch with people you know while Twitter is used to stay in touch with people you wish you knew.
Facebook is a popular free social networking website that allows registered users to create profiles, upload photos and video, send messages and keep in touch. It looks like a website/blog but is controlled by Facebook which uses profiles and anything that is posted to try to connect people that have something in common. The experience always begins with “do you know…” and a list of people that you can “invite” to be a Facebook friend. Users are required to have an email address and provide a minimal profile which you can expand as you like. What you share can be in the form of a message, a picture, or a link to a video or a website. It is like online email that goes out to anyone who “follows” you.
Twitter is a very popular free application that allows you to share shorter messages and pictures as tweets. You can search for others (like the vatican) and “follow” them and their tweets will appear in your Twitter feed whenever you access it online or via a phone or android app. These miniblog entries are limited to 140 characters. It is more like online texting than email.
There are positive and negative aspects of each and it is wise to determine what the goal is before joining either. Because they are social media they demand attention/time on a regular basis to be effective. There are people who send out multiple messages daily and people who access them weekly or monthly. Much less than that and you would seemingly have abandoned the app.
The Community of Mary has a website/blog: www.carmelife.com with an additional site for formation: www.formation.carmelife.com . Websites require the registration (for a fee) of the URL and hosting on a computer that is always online. Websites can be hosted by individuals but the process is complicated and can be contrary to an ISP’s service agreement. Usually a host company is paid an annual fee to host the site and they guarantee the site will be available almost all the time. They sometimes offer other features like email and commerce capabilities.
The following is taken from a report about a meeting of Pope John Paul II with the bishops of the world regarding the various lay communities and organizations that were springing up in the church after Vatican 2. These ideas could easily be applied to those who use the Internet to respond to God’s call to spread the Gospel and form online communities of people eager to live the Gospel message and to minister to one another and to others.
Dear Brothers in the Episcopate, I urge you to revive within you the gift you have received from your own consecration (cf. II Tm 1: 6). May the Spirit of God help us to recognize and preserve the marvels he himself inspires in the Church for the benefit of all men and women.
The Ecclesial Movements and New Communities are one of the most important innovations inspired by the Holy Spirit in the Church for the implementation of the Second Vatican Council. They spread in the wake of the Council sessions especially in the years that immediately followed it, in a period full of exciting promises but also marked by difficult trials. Paul VI and John Paul II were able to welcome and discern, to encourage and promote the unexpected explosion of the new lay realties which in various and surprising forms have restored vitality, faith and hope to the whole Church. They were bearing witness to the joy, reasonableness and beauty of being Christian, showing that they were grateful for belonging to the mystery of communion which is the Church. We have witnessed the reawakening of a vigorous missionary impetus, motivated by the desire to communicate to all the precious experience of the encounter with Christ, felt and lived as the only adequate response to the human heart’s profound thirst for truth and happiness. How is it possible not to realize at the same time that such newness is still waiting to be properly understood in the light of God’s plan and of the Church’s mission in the context of our time?
It helps us to understand that the Ecclesial Movements and New Communities are not an additional problem or risk that comes to top our already difficult task. No! they are a gift of the Lord, a valuable resource for enriching the entire Christian Community with their charisms. Consequently, trusting acceptance that makes room for them and appreciates their contributions to the life of the local Churches must not be absent. Difficulties or misunderstanding on specific questions do not authorize their closure. A “very loving” approach inspires prudence and patience, so that they may generously make available for use by all, in an orderly and fruitful manner, the many gifts they bear, which we have learned to recognize and appreciate: missionary enthusiasm, effective courses of Christian formation, a witness of faithfulness and obedience to the Church, sensitivity to the needs of the poor and a wealth of vocations.
Those who are called to a service of discernment and guidance should not claim to dominate charisms but rather to guard against the danger of suffocating them (cf. I Thes 5: 19-21), resisting the temptation to standardize what the Holy Spirit desired to be multi-form to contribute to building and extending the one Body of Christ, which the same Spirit renders firm in unity.