Traditionally, Church leaders have communicated through homilies, personal letters, and episcopal statements. Today, however, the digital world expects to respond and engage with those speaking with them. Instead of passively receiving information, online Catholics want to discuss it.
Admittedly, dialogue brings a couple of dangers. The first is that it potentially flattens structures of authority. It can promote an egalitarian state where the authority of ordained leaders is not always honored. For instance, if bishops, the legitimate shepherds of the Church, dialogue through new media, they run the risk of their voice becoming just “one of many.”
Also, online religious dialogue often evokes detractors. As Father Robert Barron attests through his many interactions on YouTube, the large majority of commenters and questioners are anti-authority, anti-religious, or anti-Catholic (or all three). Instead of worrying whether detractors will arise, however, Catholics should assume they will, and then prudently decide how to best engage them. What they shouldn’t do is let the fear of detraction prevent any type of discussion.
If dialogue is practiced in full awareness of these dangers, it can flourish. It’s at the heart of growth and community, both secular—see Socrates—and religious— see Jesus. Discussion gives the Church a human element, revealing her to be a living organism rather than a static institution.
Through prudent new media dialogue, leaders can help others develop a closer relationship to the Church, and therefore to Christ. New media users will experience what two travelers found almost 2,000 years ago: “While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them” (Luke 24:15).
Fresh Wave of Religious Vocations
Today, when someone researches a particular company, the first place they turn is the internet. Likewise, when a Catholic is trying to find a local parish, many look online, gauging a parish simply by its website.
So it should come as no surprise that for many people discerning religious vocations, the internet plays a big role. A recent survey revealed that over 90% of those discerning a religious vocation said their inquiries were aided by the internet. That same survey showed that a religious community’s website was more essential than vocation directors, parish priests, parents, or friends when gathering vocational information. Simply put, the first place many people turn in their discernment process is not to a spiritual director but to Google.
Why is this? One reason is new media’s anonymity, as mentioned before. It allows users to comfortably explore things they would normally be hesitant to approach. A young woman might be uneasy about visiting a convent or committing to a discernment retreat, but in the comfort of her home she feels free to explore the characteristics of different religious orders.
Vocation Match (www.vocationmatch.com) is one example of this in action. The site asks visitors a set of questions regarding personality type, living conditions, prayer styles, and hobbies, and then uses the answers to suggest compatible religious organizations. Other sites, like For Your Vocation (www.foryourvocation.org), similarly use new media to aid those discerning their vocation.
Dioceses wondering how to use technology in this regard can imitate the successes of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Since the diocese began a vocational outreach page on Facebook, its number of seminarians has doubled.
Finally, religious orders that have embraced new media can expect a rise in interest. For example, the Daughters of St. Paul, the Paulist Fathers, and the Society of the Holy Child Jesus are all examples of religious orders with a strong New media presence—and a growing number of vocations. Just as young people in the past were energized by the thrill of missionary work, so these orders offer the chance to reach the world, albeit through new media.
Vocations won’t increase solely because a diocese or religious order has an attractive website or is active on Facebook. But new media can act as a vocational catalyst.
Adapted from The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011)
Cover image credit: Joe’s Box www.joesbox.me
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