by Meg McDonnell
Last November, a stunning picture emerged from Kansas City, Missouri: 22,000 teens filled the streets of downtown for a Eucharistic Procession at the National Catholic Youth Conference (NCYC). The procession, the first of its kind during this bi-annual national event, brought business men and women out of their offices to watch and to adore.
Local secular and religious media were intrigued by the sight, as they explained road closures and the reasons for such closures. But even more historic were the additional 50,000 lives that were touched by this event through their participation in a virtual feed of this conference, and the uncountable number of lives who were touched through this image’s appearance not only in print but also in the blogosphere, and on Facebook, and Twitter.
New technologies have provided people with an encounter with Christ like never before. And while that’s nothing new to most, it’s important to reflect on the magnitude of this ability and how it’s transforming the concept of community, and transforming the way the Church community interacts with each other and the world.
Community on the web
Often called the “global village”, the internet, with its immediate transference of information, has brought together people of every race, creed, and age. Humanity has been united to each other like never before, in large part due to our connectivity to each other in cyberspace. This connectivity over the web has transformed the way we interact both on a personal and large-scale level.
The desire to care for our brothers and sisters those in our sight and those across the world is not new, but the way we express this care is new. As we saw in the world response to the January Haitian earthquake, the rapid spread of information regarding the devastation allowed for rapid response. Relief organizations quickly set up numbers that cell phone users to could text to in order to donate money, allowing the immediate desire to care for our brothers and sisters in despair to be instantly quenched through the click of a few buttons.
Facebook statuses were updated to express caring sentiments and prayers for the people of Haiti. And for the weeks that followed, heroic examples of hope, faith, and survival were well documented and transmitted through all waves of communication, uniting this global village to the people of Haiti and each other.
As Pope Benedict said in his 2009 World Communications Day message, “This desire for communication and friendship is rooted in our very nature as human beings and cannot be adequately understood as a response to technical innovation”. The wonderful innovation of the internet is allowing us to immediately reach out to those in need. But at the same time, these new technologies have their drawbacks in human relationships. Communication and interaction have become so rooted in technology that face-to-face interaction has diminished significantly. The Holy Father also advises:
We should be careful, therefore never to trivialize the concept or the experience of friendship. It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop online friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbors, and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation.
Online interactions can and should enhance physical interactions. And in order for that to happen instruction should take place, both direct and indirect most especially for young people.
Instructing the digital generation
This present generation of teenagers has little to no concept of friendship and community without technology being a part of it. They’re “formed and informed by this online community”, says Fred Foschnat, Founder of MyCatholicVoice.com and innovator of the NCYC virtual pilgrimage. The danger is if their online friendships become more central to their lives than their face-to-face friendships. And so, special interest should be taken to instruct them on their technology use as part of the human experience.
Classrooms, youth conferences, and families are all integrating technology instruction into their operations. Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican have dedicated much effort into learning and utilizing technological tools, too. But that’s also not new. The Catholic Church has been instructing on media and social communications for years.
In 1992 the Pontifical Council for Social Communications issued Aetatis Novae (“At the dawn of a new era”), a pastoral instruction on social communications. The instruction, observing the 20th anniversary of the Vatican’s earlier document on the same subject, Communio et Progressio, addressed the need for the Gospel message to be proclaimed in social communications. Aetatis Novae said:
Indeed, the power of media extends to defining not only what people will think but even what they will think about. Reality, for many, is what the media recognize as real; what media do not acknowledge seems of little importance. Thus de facto silence can be imposed upon individuals and groups whom the media ignore; and even the voice of the Gospel can be muted, though not entirely stilled, in this way (§4).
Today that message rings even louder. Technological communication has an even greater presence in our lives and with it comes great prominence in our relationships. And just as our actions should reflect our values, so too should what we transmit over the world wide web via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, or through texting.
That’s why conferences such as NCYC invested time and energy integrating technology into the weekend’s events. For example, during NCYC teenagers had the opportunity to learn how to incorporate their methods of communication into prayer and catechetical opportunities. Digital prayer walls displayed prayers that had been texted by teens at the conference earlier in the day. Signs posted throughout the conference listed numbers youth could text to receive quotes and messages from the saints. And internet videos before and after the weekend sought to extend the experience of the Church and Christ beyond the weekend.
All were done with goals of engaging the teenagers in the conference using a medium they are familiar with in their daily lives and, hopefully, instructing them by example on ways to use technology to enrich their human interactions and spread the Gospel message.
“Communication is a moral act”, says John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter “The Rapid Development”. And like we do with any other moral principle, the proper way of using new technologies and communications must be taught and integrated into our experiences.
But above all, it’s important to remember that Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and so forth are no different from any other communication they’re simply means to an end. When we seek community, whether physical or online, we’re seeking God and His Kingdom.
And so Bishop Jaime Soto, in his homily at the closing Mass at NCYC, reminded the youth that wherever they go online and in the world, they can be witnesses of this truth.
God does not buy a new iphone or get a new app. His communication platform is the human person. He chose Francis, Damien, Theresa, Catherine and so many others. And today he chooses you.
The world is not looking for more software. It does not need another hardware upgrade. As Bob McCarty said on the first night of NCYC, the world is waiting for disciples to personally show up, step up, and step out. Together with Christ we are the artisans of a cultural climate change that connects the human person to the truth and charity of Christ Jesus, our Lord. Let the Lord Jesus reign in your hearts. Together with Him we can build a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love, and peace. Que el pueblo diga, Amen. Let the Church say, Amen.
Meg McDonnell is a young freelance journalist in Chicago, Illinois. She has published articles on religious vocations, marriage and family, pro-life issues, and the Catholic faith. She also has numerous years of experience working in Catholic youth ministry and education.
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