By this point, Catholics listening to Pope Francis’ ongoing messages to the world can feel comfortable that renewing social communication–in all its forms (especially in the digital realm), in the Church and in the secular sphere, among faith-based people and “nones” alike–is one of his priorities. He spoke about it again in his Pentecost homily this past Sunday, connecting to the Holy Spirit’s work of peace-building some key themes he has raised in “Christus Vivit,” his 2019 exhortation to young people, as well as in his 2018 and 2019 messags for World Communications Day.
I believe he’s saying we need to help bring Christian values back into our understanding of what constitutes fruitful journalistic communication. So many people are playing the journalist, not only consuming news but generating news through their social media, sometimes without a sense of accountability for toxic thoughts they’re soaking in and emotions they’re promulgating. Pope Francis offers pastoral advice regarding the lively cyberspace exchanges of information, our dual roles as news consumers and news generators, the spirit of purpose and pleasure we must bring to community conversations, and the respect for complex human dignity and the sense of receptivity we should bring to encounters in the public square. Defaming others without accountability, short attention spans that jump to conclusions, oversimplified labels dismissing people, and the manipulation of truth are reducing our mutual trust and our hope that democracy can exercise its ability to solve problems for the common good.
In his Pentecost homily, Pope Francis cautioned that, “in the age of the computer,” we feel more distanced and isolated from each other, and “the more we use the social media, the less social we are becoming.” We are at risk of spreading “a culture of lies.” You can see his full homily here.
He also spoke in recent weeks about the dangers (as well as the benefits) of our digitzed culture as a home where so many young people reside. In “Christus Vivit,” his exhortation drew from the Synod on Youth that took place in Rome in 2019. He sounded cautionary notes that should make parents carefully consider how to keep our kids learning and growing (as participants in civil society and Church life) during the “summer break.”
Catholics of all ages need to understand their faith and their values better in a world where popular culture no longer affirms these things. As politics join the summer weather in heating up, policy issues may accentuate bitter local debates that many previously ignored, and local expressions of free speech and exercise of religious values may confront reduced tolerance. Summer is a great time to journey in explorations of truth among different people who can be met in charity and peaceful, relaxed solidarity.
We parents are tempted to become lax about the school year disciplines encouraging young people to learn and foster community life in the context of Christian values We invite kids to have vacation fun while forgetting that the digital culture is one where they might be sidetracked into artificial realities and self-created identities. A value-started life may be captured by the entertainment offered by corporate interests, or by the extremist energies of activists who place enragement over engagement, income over instruction, sensation over common sense.
The Holy Father said this in his exhortation:
“Today’s media culture creates a deep sense of orphanood. We need to build fraternial environments” in our parishes, as well as in our communities and families, where young people can rise above isolation and experience a sense of belonging and shared purpose.” Rather than being distracted by video games, they deserve to be in places of multigenerational dialogue, memory, aspirations and action attuned to the the things that matter most in life.” (Christus Vivit, paragraph 216)
These messages align with Pope Francis’ 2018 and 2019 messages for World Communications Day (an annual pause for reflection, initiated by the Second Vatican Council and its document Inter Mirifica), In the 2019 message, he cautioned that the “community” model practiced in social media is too often one of excluding people and ideas with which you differ. The Church idea of community, he said, is based on communion–something higher that brings us together in humility with similar beliefs and motivations. The Eucharist and other sacraments make us more aware of our shared identity as a Body of Christ that is one although we comprise many parts, all of which have uniquely beautiful, God-given gifts to be shared.
The pope’s 2018 message called for a “journalism of peace” that proactively asks deeper questions in order to help us find areas of common ground, plus “education for truth” that springs from journalists valuing the truth and inspiring others to seek conformity with reality. A relativism that allows us to define our own truths on the basis of emotion and individually-defined primacy can otherwise combine with an urgent moralism–a sense of right and wrong that should be maintained–but one that unilaterally judges who is wrong–who is an evil force by dint of strongly held beliefs and therefore not someone we can learn from or engage with because they recognize a higher power.
A growing body of work by the Pope is telling us we have a kind of additional curriculum for teaching and practicing an evangelization that heals the culture and brings us together at the societal and individual level. It’s got to be based on a personal, receptive relationship with the Lord–through the Holy Spirit’s everyday influence on our lives, as stated in the new Pentecost homily. That gives us the love and forgiveness by which we can communicate with others as merciful fellow sinners, fellow seekers of truth who can find great joy and encouragement in local avenues of discovery. We’re not denying the truth, the way and the life, but we’re following Him rather than sitting on the beach in judgment of others or marching off in war against them.
Pentecost has helped to bring us to a summer break where we can some the time to be more reflective and receptive about the best ways to work together. The Paraclete will help us to speak in ways that others understand. Our faith in Christ and our communion through the sacraments and the “Amen” we say together at every liturgy will help to focus on things we can do, especially as a mix of old and young, rich and poor, robust Catholic and open-minded “none,” so long as we stay in motion–not leaving a vacuum of laziness or elitism-in-a-bubble. Into such vacuums can be injected popular culture’s tendencies toward narcissim, isolation and escape from painful realities.
Pope Franics reminded us in the 2018 World Communications Day message, about which I wrote a book of reflections and research, that we must be instruments of peace and stewards of the news, including the “Good News” and the bad news, sharing a sense of sacrifice, wonder and duty that brings us together, rather than driving us apart. Note that the pontiff’s 2018 message ends with a version of the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis in which fully engaged communicators (“love always commuicates,” the pope has said) have to put our lives where our words are.
I’m committed to encouraging fellow Catholics about the power of inclusive conversation, embracing both faith and reason, that our use of digital media can produce great fruits if we understand that it entails both rights and responsibilities, faith and reason, minds and hearts, smiles and tears, the use of remarkable communication tools and an impulse toward flesh-and-blood community where “many parts” all enjoy freedom and authenticity in recognition of the really real.
As Francis said on Pentecost Sunday, ” the Spirit is far from being an abstract reality; he is the Person who is the most concrete and close.” He is the one who changes our lives by immersing us in the love and grace of God if we allow him to–in between the latest video games and summertime distractions. Self-satisfied temptations to lounge around, ignorant while others are defamed, excluded, and orphaned, make our summer vocations unsustainable. We must accompany all persons of infinite worth, whom the pontiff describes as “the heart of the news.” These are the stories that should be trending.
(Summer may be a good time to plan parish-based, group-based or school-based programs for discussion of alternative approaches to changing times and the risk of greater polarization. A sense of purpose and opportunities to make a difference, knowing truth and emrbacing charity, may be exactly what young people–and people of all ages–are looking for. Conversations for neighbors of all faiths, from all backgrounds, based on values-informed principles rather than conflict-oriented politics, may be just the thing to focus and energize people of good will to consider a new evangelization that addresses everybody’s growing concerns about news and social polarization, as discussed in my book, Headlines That Hurt, and my blogs at http://OnWord.net. Please consider inviting Bill Schmitt to speak to your group and to facilitate conversations built around the strong series of insights in place and in progress from Pope Francis, Saint Francis and the time-tested wisdom of the Church–contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)