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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXVI, No. 3
Michaelmas 2011

God in the Public Square

by Sheila Liaugminas

Back in late March, I watched an interview that CNN’s Anderson Cooper conducted with four New York Times journalists who had been kidnapped in Libya, and listened intently as they recounted their terrifying ordeal. Their hands were bound and they were ordered to lie on the floor face down. They refused, saying that they knew their captors could easily shoot them in the back with no hesitation. One of the men said that instead, he dropped to his knees, but continued to look his gun-wielding captor in the eye. As long as he faced them, he believed it would be harder for them to shoot him. He was right. It saved their lives.

Why? Because looking another person in the eye, face to face, humanizes them.

“Communication is a moral act”

Whatever we’ve gained in the world of instant social communications, we’ve lost that personal contact.

From the time Christ commissioned the Apostles to go out to all the world and tell the good news, to their successors in modern times updating that mandate with the exhortation to use all modern means of communications, the point was reaching the hearts and minds of people with the radical message of the Gospel.

Blessed John Paul II reached more people on earth in person than any pope (and any person) in history. In his final months of life, he issued an Apostolic Letter, The Rapid Development – To Those Responsible for Communications. It has become the mission statement for some of us in media professions. Among its more profound appeals is the acknowledgement that “the first Areopagus of modern times is the world of communications, which is capable of unifying humanity and transforming it into — as it is commonly referred to — ‘a global village’...

Ours is an age of global communication in which countless moments of human existence are either spent with, or at least confronted by, the different processes of the mass media… The modern technologies increase to a remarkable extent the speed, quantity and accessibility of communication, but they above all do not favor that delicate exchange which takes place between mind and mind, between heart and heart, and which should characterize any communication at the service of solidarity and love.

Which was followed by this:

Jesus teaches that communication is a moral act. “A good person brings forth good out of a store of goodness, but an evil person brings forth evil out of a store of evil. I tell you, on the Day of Judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Mt 12:35-57) (par. 13)

In successive messages issued for the annual World Day of Communications, Pope Benedict has sharpened the focus on the even more rapidly developing nature of social networking and media technologies that carry global communications, to keep the Gospel mandate current and relevant. His 2011 message said this:

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...

This gets back to the removal of the human face from the increasingly personal elements in those digital exchanges — which echoes Pope Benedict’s message for this occasion in 2009: New Technologies, New Relationships: Promoting a Culture of Respect, Dialogue and Friendship:

Young people, in particular, have grasped the enormous capacity of the new media to foster connectedness, communication and understanding between individuals and communities, and they are turning to them as means of communicating with existing friends, of meeting new friends, of forming communities and networks, of seeking information and news, and of sharing their ideas and opinions…

The desire for connectedness and the instinct for communication that are so obvious in contemporary culture are best understood as modern manifestations of the basic and enduring propensity of humans to reach beyond themselves and to seek communion with others. In reality, when we open ourselves to others, we are fulfilling our deepest need and becoming more fully human.

Digital soul

But cyberspace can be so cold and impersonal, in spite of the glut of humans interacting digitally. Which is why the Italian bishops organized a congress on technological communications, and Pope Benedict talked to them about bringing some warmth and heart into that world. He noted:

… the dangers of conformity and control, of intellectual and moral relativism, which are already evident in the diminution of the spirit of criticism, in the truth reduced to an interplay of opinions, in the many forms of degradation and humiliation of individual intimacy. We are witnessing a “pollution of the spirit which clouds our faces and makes them less prone to smile”…

“And yet,” he added,

the aim of this congress is precisely to recognize faces, and therefore to overcome those collective dynamics that can lead us to lose a sense of the depths people have, to remain on the surface. When this happens those people become bodies without a soul, objects to be exchanged and consumed.

“And how is it possible to return to people’s faces today?” the pope asked. Very good question, given the prominence of Facebook and similar communications.

More than by our technical resources, necessary though they are, we wish to identify ourselves by inhabiting the [digital] universe with a believing heart which helps to give a soul to the endless flow of communications on the Internet.

The Church keeps honing this message as times warrant. In his address at the October 2010 World Press Conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Jesús Colina of Zenit news agency took Catholic communicators to task:

When a Church communicates on the Internet as communion, in community, the reality moves from being virtual to something real, as it puts the surfer in contact with the real life of the diocese, parish or community. And it is then that the greatest interactivity is achieved, when from the virtual reality one moves to “encounter”, which is, when all is said and done, what changes a person’s life.
(Jesús Colina, “Talking Much, Listening Little”,

This is the central message to which Cardinal Francis George devoted his book The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture. Man’s nature is deeply social, but it is social communion, and we’ve lost that in modern times, said the cardinal. He cites Pope Paul VI in his provocative observation in Evangelii Nuntiandi that “the split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time” (§20).

That’s both a provocation and a challenge.

Network and communion

Let’s define terms. Cardinal George says Catholics have a mission to transform the social order, and it’s based on communion. And communion is a network of relationships formed when the gifts of Christ are shared with others. That can apply to Facebook, Twitter, blogs, e-mail, text message, and any other form of communication available.

This gets overwhelming to Catholics and all people of goodwill who try to find and engage the good in communications media while prudently avoiding the bad. At a Family Life conference in the southwest in the first days of April, I recounted that CNN interview and the message of the power of the human face and its gaze. There is a deeply innate reason that human contact stirs the soul.

Cardinal George said “Jesus is God’s Facebook”. I wish I’d thought of that. He said through Jesus, God Himself offered His friendship. Reading that, I thought of Saint Paul. If he were here today, he would no doubt be using every means of social communications media.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, addressing a Jubilee of Catechists in 2000, spoke of the New Evangelization:

Certainly, at the end of his life Paul believed that he had proclaimed the Gospel to the very ends of the earth, but the Christians were small communities dispersed throughout the world, insignificant according to the secular standards. In reality, they were the leaven that penetrates the dough from within, and they carried within themselves the future of the world (cf. Mt 13, 33) (§1).

He concluded with this:

When we carefully consider the Christian message, we are not speaking about a great many things. In reality, the Christian message is very simple: we speak about God and man, and in so doing we say everything (§4) (Cardinal Ratzinger, address to catechists and religion teachers at the Jubilee of Catechists, December 12, 2000).

The Benedict generation

At World Youth Day 2011, nearly two million young adults were equipped to say that in a newly charged way. Each young pilgrim was given a copy of YouCat, a youth-oriented version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a new tool of evangelization uniquely tuned to the communication systems of modern youth. In the foreward, Pope Benedict asks youth to study the catechism “with passion” and the commitment to persevere. “Sacrifice your time for it! Study it in the silence of your room; read it with friends; form study groups and networks; exchange ideas on the Internet”, the pope wrote.

Judging from social network activity during and just after World Youth Day, it was a hit.

Pope Benedict understands the cultural conflicts of the present moment in history as both an obstacle and an opportunity for a Church in a time of crisis. Cardinal Antonio Rouco, Archbishop of Madrid, told the massive world Youth Day throngs that they are “the generation of Benedict XVI. It is not the same as that of John Paul II. Your place in life has its peculiarities.” Among them, he said, are globalization, new technologies, and global economic crises.

John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, told me in a radio interview that Joseph Ratzinger has long held the theory that civilization has the capacity to renew itself through its sub-cultures, and that’s what the Church has become in this era, though “a large and influential one”, he adds. “Benedict is pressing young Catholics to become a creative minority, and he gave them the vocabulary for that”, said Allen. “He has provided the intellectual scaffolding” for shaping and building the culture.

This “evangelical Catholicism” is motivated by the hunger for identity among young adults, and identified by a strong defense of Catholic tradition and practice. It requires a “robust public proclamation of Catholic teaching”, Allen explained. “These young Catholics didn’t inherit the faith as their parents and grandparents did, but they see it as a matter of personal choice in a highly secular culture, a conscious choice that has to be proven and defended”.

They are the face of the Church for the foreseeable future, he said, and they’re on a mission to transform the culture.

Pope Benedict, in his final message at World Youth Day, saw much hope for the future in the young people who attended:

The feast of faith which we have shared enables us to look forward with great confidence in Providence, which guides the Church across the seas of history. That is why she continues to be young and full of life, even as she confronts challenging situations. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, who makes Jesus Christ present in the hearts of young people in every age and shows them the grandeur of the divine vocation given to every man and woman.... Young people readily respond when one proposes to them, in sincerity and truth, an encounter with Jesus Christ, the one Redeemer of humanity.  Now those young people are returning home as missionaries of the Gospel, “rooted and built up in Christ, and firm in the faith”, and they will need to be helped on their way. 

And providing this help to a new generation of Christians is our responsibility, as Pope Benedict stressed:

The yearning for God which the Creator has placed in the hearts of young people is more powerful than all of these, as is the power from on high which gives divine strength to those who follow the Master and who seek in Him nourishment for life.  Do not be afraid to present to young people the message of Jesus Christ in all its integrity, and to invite them to celebrate the sacraments by which He gives us a share in His own life.

Sheila Liaugminas, a member of the Voices editorial board, is a noted Catholic journalist who lives in Chicago. She currently hosts the daily program “A Closer Look” on Relevant Radio, and serves as network news director. Visit her blogs: InForumBlog and SheilaReports.

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