Can the Word Become a Hashtag?

The Synod Enters the Digital Age
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Sebastian Duhau, an auditor from Australia, uses his phone before a session in the aula (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

 

Part of a series on the Vatican Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment, this is the fifth of Griffin Oleynick’s dispatches from Rome. Catch up on his firstsecondthird, and fourth pieces here. Check back soon for the final installment.

 

It was late on Sunday afternoon and I still hadn’t been to Mass. There was a massive line to enter St. Peter’s Basilica snaking through the square outside, so I made my way to the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, in the heart of Rome’s medieval quarter, where Mass would be celebrated using the “Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom,” developed in the early fifth century and still the most popular form of the Byzantine Rite today. As the congregation moved through repeated recitations of the trisagion (“Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us”) toward the chanting of the Gospel, the priest invoked Holy Wisdom and prayed that the “pure light of Divine Knowledge” might “open the eyes of our minds.” The Word, as it does in the beginning of John’s Gospel, had suddenly become “flesh,” dwelling there among us. The gospel, I recalled, is more than a message; it’s an encounter with a loving, incarnate Word, one that breaks into our lives and actively seeks us out.

As the Synod on Young People neared its conclusion, conversations among delegates, auditors, and commentators turned to what the practical, “enfleshed” results of the meeting might be. Young people have been pressing for greater attention to the concerns of women and LGBT Catholics in the final document (an initial draft came out the week of October 22), while the whole assembly has been stirred by tales of martyrdom in India and Iraq. But perhaps the theme to emerge most prominently in recent days is the question of social media, both its ubiquity in the lives of young Catholics and the church’s need to develop a more robust presence in the digital world. Somewhat surprisingly, synod delegates—mostly aging clerics in their 60s, 70s, and 80s—have shown a willingness to embrace the new platforms, viewing them not just as positive tools, but (as Bishop David Tencer of Reykjavik said at a press briefing) a pastoral necessity that “moves the church forward.”

Indeed, throughout the course of the Synod there’s been a steady stream of tweets, videos, and Instagram posts coming from both Vatican-managed accounts and delegates themselves. Most simply express a kind of benign affection for young people and enthusiasm for the Synod, their updates mirroring the timing and content of the official press briefings. But some, like Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, have used social media to convey more substantive remarks, tweeting highlights from their speeches in the hall and urging the church to embrace greater transparency and inclusivity. Still, as the church readily admits its relative inexperience in social media, how can it develop a distinctive voice that helps make the Word present? Should it even try? Efforts in recent days seem comically, even hopelessly, misguided—do church officials really expect young people to develop deeper spiritual lives after last week’s release of “Follow JC Go,” a Pokémon GO-style app where users wander the streets capturing saints, biblical figures, and Marian devotions on their smartphones?

The principle still holds in the digital age: the medium is essentially neutral, its moral value depending on the use to which it is put.

As Fr. Arturo Sosa, SJ (Superior General of the Jesuits) remarked at a Vatican press briefing in mid-October, the rise of social media represents an “authentic anthropological transformation.” Still, it’s not one without historical precedent, and the church has never shied away from aggiornamento when the signs of the times demand it—consider its transition from oral to written culture in antiquity, or its embrace of visual art in the middle ages, print culture in the Renaissance, and radio in the twentieth century. The principle still holds in the digital age: the medium is essentially neutral, its moral value depending on the use to which it is put. And with the potential to become tools for evangelization, the argument goes, social media ought to be embraced enthusiastically, as the church learns to speak the language of the young people to whom it ministers. That’s the reasoning present at the Synod, too. As some of the English-speaking delegates wrote in their small group report earlier this month, by sowing semina verbi (“seeds of the Word”) across the digital landscape, the gospel can find new audiences, even in “the most remote and even hostile corners of the contemporary world.”  

A scan of the @synod2018 Twitter account reveals how young people have engaged digitally with the Synod thus far. Auditors—the thirty-six young Catholics attending the Synod as non-voting members—have been encouraged to use their own accounts not only to post selfies and short videos with delegates and Pope Francis, but also to give brief updates and reflections on the tone and topics of discussion both in the hall and in their small groups. It’s a strategy, one that takes its cue from discussions at the pre-synodal meeting held in Rome back in March. As I learned after speaking with Katie Prejean McGrady, one of the lay attendees from the United States, one of the main concerns back then was how the church might reach out to the “nones.” Social media, with its instantaneous, global reach, she told me, is where young people are out front. “They’re not going to wait for permission from diocesan officials,” she told me. “Especially when it comes to building new forms of community.”

Of course, some clergy have already mastered it. Fr. James Martin, SJ, Editor-at-Large at America Media, began experimenting with social media in 2006, after the publisher of his book My Life With the Saints convinced him to start a public Facebook page. He’s since become a Twitter star, and now holds an advisory appointment with the Dicastery for Communication at the Vatican, where he offers advice on how the church can get its message out more effectively. Over email, he told me that yes, he views social media as a ministry, one that helps him guide people to God. But his enthusiasm was measured. The connections that technology affords, he warned, are incomplete substitutes for face-to-face conversations or real relationships. After all, he said, “there’s a reason why it’s often referred to as virtual communication.” And the effects aren’t always positive. In his personal life, he’s found that too much time online can sometimes lead to spiritual desolation and burnout: “To connect with God, and others,” he said, “it’s important to disconnect from social media.”

To be sure, as a frequent target of digital trolls and hostile online attacks, Martin is also directly familiar with the darker side. “Remember the definition of prayer as a ‘long, loving, look at the real’?” he asks. “Social media often seems like a ‘short, hateful, glance at the real.’” The speed and reactive nature of virtual conversation create an environment in which debate can quickly devolve into personal attack. But here’s where Martin thinks the church can offer an alternative, taking a public stand against sites that traffic in hatred and personal vilification. “Some of these sites don’t deserve the term ‘Catholic,’” he argued. He also would like to see the bishops “more fully understand how damaging these sites are to church unity and, more basically, to the spiritual welfare of the faithful.”

But what about regulating our own social media use, as Martin recommends? There’s growing awareness of the harmful toll that social media addiction takes on our mental health and the harm it does to our real-world relationships. The New York Times even publishes periodic guides for readers looking to sever ties with the digital world. Yet it’s easier said than done: constant stimulation and disruption are built into the for-profit business models of Facebook and Twitter. With more than ninety-five percent of Facebook’s revenue coming from advertising, its bottom line literally depends on us staying addicted to our screens.

The CEOs of Twitter and Facebook are out to make a profit, but what we really need is freedom. So we shouldn’t be afraid to tell them no.

While the Synod as a whole has been reluctant to adopt a more critical stance towards social media, Bishop Frank Caggiano of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut (who at a recent press briefing categorized the digital world as a “missionary continent”), was more blunt. “The CEOs of Twitter and Facebook are out to make a profit, but what we really need is freedom. So we shouldn’t be afraid to tell them ‘no.’ And the Synod can take the lead in calling on them to purify their intentions.”

His comments came in the course of a larger discussion touching on everything from divisiveness in the church and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas to the spirituality of icons and Caggiano’s own upbringing in an Italian family in Brooklyn.

He acknowledged straightaway that there was indeed disagreement at the Synod, even among the members of the U.S. delegation. Early on, there was some conflict around the language of the Instrumentum laboris, with some bishops wanting to take a more flexible, pastoral approach and others insisting that the church not water down its immutable doctrine. “But this distinction between truth and service, dogma and pastoral outreach, theology and social justice is really a false dichotomy,” he said. “The church might know the final destination of humanity in God, but it also has to accompany. After all, the Truth isn’t just an idea, but a person, an event: the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

That is the genius of Catholicism, he said: the word “and,” indicative of the church’s fundamental inclusivity. That’s what he hopes the church will embrace as it leaves the Synod. “Social media has rearranged our understanding of community. It too easily divides us into self-selecting, parochial tribes. We stop listening to those outside our tribe. At meals in my Italian family, or on the streets of Brooklyn, you always had to talk with people you disagreed with, even those you thought were nuts. But you didn’t shut them out. Because there’s always an ‘and.’ It’s the ‘and’ that holds us at the table.”

But he admits the current challenges. “People don’t trust us,” Caggiano said bluntly. “That’s why I said we need to talk openly about sex abuse during our very first day in the Synod hall. We need to stop relying on the power and authority of the office, and instead establish relationships of trust. First, you encounter the person. Then the power and charism of the office follows.”

As it happened, I was able to experience firsthand what he meant during our meeting. We were still discussing the sex-abuse crisis, when, without really planning to, I told him that I’d been a victim of clerical abuse myself. It had happened three years earlier, when I was a postulant in formation with a monastic community in Italy. My novice master had sexually harassed me for months before finally assaulting me; I left formation, reported it, and he was removed from his position. But for years, I told Bishop Caggiano, I’d wanted someone in the hierarchy to simply sit and hear what it was like. Without blinking, he did just that, not only apologizing on behalf of the church, but also listening to me intently before offering a long, meaningful blessing. It was a graced moment, a sudden and unexpected outpouring of the Spirit—and how else does God work? Our conversation, which began with a press inquiry that I’d sent to his staff on Twitter, had ended in a direct, genuine encounter in the presence of Christ.  

That encounter also seems indicative of what’s really happening at the Synod—the outpouring of the Spirit, the spontaneous conversations, the interaction between young people and the world’s bishops. Yet it reveals as well the limits of communicating in digital bursts: Christ simply can’t be confined to 240 characters (or less). Nor can the Word be “captured” in a selfie stream on Instagram or through a Pokémon GO-style smartphone app. Yes, the church can and should develop a richer presence online. But it must do so thoughtfully, not with a view to its own self-promotion and success, but to authentic encounter with the Risen Lord.

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor and the current John Garvey fellow at Commonweal.

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