Like everyone else, I awoke last week to every media outlet abuzz with news of Pope Benedict XVI announcing his abdication. I only briefly read news stories from a couple of online papers that I frequent, and then spent most of the day checking in with Twitter to hear the latest reactions and speculations.
Obviously, this was personally tuned to a specific segment of the population, so I was largely shielded from the… less charitable responses. It wasn’t long before the darker opinions began slipping through as anyone and everyone with a keyboard began making pronouncements about our Church and its leader, especially on my Facebook feed.
Coming from a very liberal college town that prides itself in being “an oasis of blue in a red state,” I normally duck my head a little and bite my tongue scrolling past links and snarky words that have become a badge of honor among the liberal hipster set, however that night I noticed a simple status from a friend: “Where’s the class in mocking the pope?” I might have simply continued, except that I noticed the enormous number of comments screaming from the corner. Curiosity made me click.
I began scrolling through them and was shocked by the vehemence and anger and hatred, but most of all I was rather awed by the misinformation. It seems that otherwise rational people have some very strong things to say about the Catholic church and most of them present it as fact. The words of Venerable Fulton Sheen came to mind: “There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be.” Being a convert and having no advanced degrees in theology or church history, I bear no grand credentials. I do claim a modicum of common sense and the ability to give at least a few moments to general fact checking before condemning people or things, whether I agree with them or not.
I cannot overstate my desire to avoid the kind of conflict that arises online: impersonal, usually thoughtless, quarreling that always seems to devolve into personal attacks. So when I finished reading this particular thread, I quickly closed the browser and went to bed. I never slept. All night, I was turning the comments over in my mind and almost without realizing it, formulating responses to each piece of misinformation. By dawn, I could no longer contain myself. I sat down to the computer as if preparing for battle and began carefully addressing several of the more outrageous comments with a calm tone and plenty of documentation. In my mind, I thought surely that facts presented rationally would be considered. I am certain that those with far more experience navigating the online waters are chuckling knowingly as they await my inevitable report: it seems that in such a forum, facts don’t matter. No matter how calmly stated, nor well-sourced, my responses were met with fury and attacks. The issues which I addressed and defended with fact, were simply ignored as if they had never been brought up and new attacks were levied with redoubled viciousness. I continued to respond through several iterations of this “discussion” and with each successive post I struggled to become ever more calm and rational, but my cheeks were flushed with fury. For the sake of my sanity, I decided to offer my final responses in kindness, and respectfully bow out of the conversation. I felt defeated. I feel unsteady in a world where logic is not valued. If well-stated facts don’t convince, then what will? I questioned myself and my ability to defend what I love. I questioned a world filled with such blind hatred. The rest of my day was colored by that interaction and my perceived failure.
The next morning I awoke to an email from the same friend who had made the original post. He thanked me for standing up for our mutual beliefs and expressed his surprise that I could respond “patiently and charitably” in the face of such frustrating responses. I felt contrite as I considered how very opposite my interior disposition had been in those moments, despite the calmness of my typed words, and considered how much I had believed others’ ideas could be controlled by my debate skills. So often we assume that the outcome of any given situation is within our control if only we work hard enough, argue fervently enough, believe deeply enough.
Suddenly, the parable of the sower of seeds came to mind, and I saw it in a new light as I was humbled yet again by the realization that I will never convert a single person to the faith. I will never change a single heart. I don’t have that power. All I can do is throw out seeds with love and in faith. In that moment, it seemed to all fall on rocky soil, but how many may have read those words? How long might those words might stay in the minds of those who were so aggressively fighting against them? Who can say when the grace of God will allow a single seed to take root? I don’t control the ground on which seeds may fall, I don’t control the conditions under which they may sprout, and I may never see the fruit which is reaped (if any), but I do possess some precious seeds, and the one thing within my control is the choice to reach out and spread them around. The rest I leave in God’s hands.
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