Brandon Vogt beat me to it with this, as I was planning to comment later today, but he is quite right to urge people to read the message from the Holy Father about using online social networks, in his message for the 47th World Communications day, on Sunday 12 May, this year.
Intuitive as ever, Pope Benedict just ‘gets it’. It’s all about being the voice of calm reason, not overblown melodramatic rhetoric, no nasty personal insults, calumny or detraction and above all being a great witness to the faith. People glean a sense of who you are through your words and someone who is always carping and criticising, even if their points are valid, does little to demonstrate the beauty and richness of our faith, let alone impart the joy of a close relationship with our Creator, the one who will continue to love every single one of us throughout eternity.
None of us are perfect (I’m recalling my grumble earlier today about a certain Catholic columnist rather guiltily) but we have to remember at all times that we are ambassadors for Christ. And, as the Pope says, people are interested in us as people, not simply in ideas, although all of us have to admit that blogging is a form of narcissism and not get carried away by that, it is also fine and often helpful to share personal anecdotes, ones that testify to our own fallen humanity, rather than simply preach lofty and unrealistic ideals.
It’s why I write at length about unplanned pregnancies – I’ve walked the walk on that issue and can understand how it feels. It’s also why I talk about NFP sometimes being tricky and requiring sacrifice. Not because I wish to deter people, but because it’s important to understand why people may feel uncomfortable and I can empathise with the struggle. Chastity, that is appropriate sexual behaviour is not easy for everyone, regardless of sexuality or even marital status. It is the teaching that most people have an issue with simply because they cannot see the harm that results from a gesture ordered towards individualistic pleasure. It’s important for those involved in ministry or catechesis to understand those issues and sharing personal experience of struggle can not only help in understanding and walking with someone else in their hour of need, but will also bring others to reconciliation and an acceptance of truth.
Former abortion clinic workers and great apologists and converts such as Blessed John Henry Newman, demonstrate that gentle living witness and personal experience are infinitely more powerful tools of evangelisation than lengthy arid philosophical and theological jargon, which can in itself be an exercise in narcissism and intellectual show-boating.
What the Pope is saying is that it’s not ‘just the internet‘. He is understanding the importance that digital media is having on everyone’s lives and the power of social media as an effective tool for envangelisation. In terms of how he talks about the internet bringing people and communities together, again he is correct. I have met some of my closest real-life Catholic friends as a result of the internet – we now use the internet to swiftly communicate, but as a result have much closer real-life contact, as the three hour conversation I had the other night, encompassing amongst other things, Eucharistic miracles, will testify. The internet has enabled me to meet wonderful Catholics with shared common interests in real-life, whom I am proud to call friends. It has transformed my prayer life, not least in terms of some of the digital applications available – whether that be in terms of helping me make a really good confession or introducing me to an easy way of Praying the Divine Office. It has proven a far richer depth of spiritual resources, in terms of pointing me to relevant meetings and lectures, decent reading material, podcasts and online prayer requests, than simply word of mouth or any individual catechesis sessions. Whilst it cannot replace authentic real-life human contact, the internet acts as a supplement.
And because it isn’t just the internet, because what’s said on social media or blogs, can have a real and lasting impact on people’s lives, then it is beholden on all of us to ensure that we use these tools in an entirely appropriate and effective way. The internet can undoubtedly be a deadly weapon, intended to inflict real and lasting damage on others’ lives in the wrong hands. When we look at its power to evangelise and transform, to bring about conversions of heart and healing graces, it can be no surprise that the glamour of the internet is beset with pitfalls, so though the Pope urges us to be creative and imaginative with our language, we must be like Michelangelo, reflecting the glory of creation and the word made flesh, through our own words.
People are so keen to write the Pope off, in terms of his age, his commitment to orthodoxy and his liturgical preferences, but with this message he captures the heart of the internet and demonstrates an detailed understanding of a very modern tool, which people half his age either write off or have very little knowledge of. He’s certainly not anywhere near ready for retirement or mentally slowing down yet and I would wager that whilst he would approve of the way the internet is gradually bringing about and supporting much needed liturgical reform, he probably wouldn’t appreciate much of the ecclesiastical bashing that goes on either.
But all in all, like his perceptive insight in so many other areas, the Pope just gets it. And that’s why an overwhelming majority of Catholics are so delighted that the Holy Spirit moved to give us Joseph Ratzinger as our Vicar of Christ.