By JOEL DAVIDSON
Last month the Catholic Church marked World Day of Communications. Pope Benedict XVI penned a message for the occasion in which he spent the bulk of his letter writing about the “unprecedented opportunity” of online social networks.
There’s been quite a bit of discussion as to just what the pope was getting at, but most agree that he was at least urging Catholics to take seriously the fact that social networks such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others are meeting points where the truth of the Catholic Church can leaven the wider culture.
Facebook, for instance now boasts more than 500 million active users. Together, these folks spend more than 700 billion minutes a month on Facebook and the average user is connected to 80 community pages, groups and events.
The trick is to avoid the myriad pitfalls of social networking, while wading into such a vast global milieu.
The pope notes the serious dangers in spending too much time living in “a sort of parallel existence” and he see that there is a “risk of constructing a false image of oneself” or falling into “self indulgence.”
And yet, the pontiff also sees a unique meeting place, across space and cultures, wherein believers can “bear witness to their most profound convictions…”
The challenge is to remain authentic and to not communicate things on Facebook that we would not say face-to-face.
In other words, if we would feel inauthentic befriending someone for the sole purpose of evangelizing them, we ought not to do that online either.
There’s no point in using the potential for online anonymity to offensively proclaim the Gospel. That’s probably not even possible.
Brother John Mary Ignatius of the Community of St. John, in Belgium, has exhibited an uncanny skill in utilizing Facebook to share the Gospel with highly secularized teenagers from Europe. (read story here)
A religious brother, who was recently a featured speaker at the Alaska Catholic Youth Conference in Anchorage, Brother John Mary has garnered more than 3,500 Facebook “friends” in two years, and the numbers are multiplying daily.
The key to his success, however, is not in sheer numbers. Rather, his use of Facebook is earnest and authentic. People respect this and are comfortable engaging him in questions about God’s existence, the meaning of life and the hope that animates him.
In a geographically vast and religiously disinclined state such as Alaska, we would all do well to read the pope’s letter and try to engage the burgeoning number of souls who seek community and meaning via the social networks.
The dangers of inauthentic dialogue, false personas, shallow chatter and wasted time can be addressed by imposing limits to our use of social networks. We ought not to employ them to fill up the empty spaces of our day or to idly languish away the hours. Rather, we should enter the online dialogue with a clear sense of purpose, much like Saint Paul entered the Court of Gentiles in ancient times. He headed out into the marketplace of ideas to engage those searching for meaning and truth. Ultimately, our goal should be to move people beyond Facebook to actual encounters with Christ and his church.
The pope’s message reminds us that, if used wisely, social networks can “contribute to the satisfaction of the desire for meaning, truth and unity which remain the most profound aspirations of each human being.”
To read the pope’s entire message, click here.