As we approach the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, let’s remember one of the key “signs of the times” that prompted the Council is what Pope Benedict calls “the eclipse of God” in the Western world. Formerly Christians societies, by the mid-20th century, had adopted a sort of practical atheism: people were living their everyday lives as if God did not exist.
But the Council saw more than just problems in the hustle and bustle of contemporary lifestyle. It saw new opportunities, like the development of the modern media.
In the last fifteen years, there has been dramatic development in communications media. First came the internet. Then the more interactive blog. Finally the social media of twitter, facebook, and YouTube. Put that together with smart phones, IPads, and “apps” and you have a communications revolution.
Let’s begin with the potential of the new media to build up the faithful. One of the Council’s goals was to make the entire liturgy, in all its richness, more central and accessible to the life of every Christian. Through phone apps such as Laudate and IMissal, people now can carry around the Ordo, the Church calendar, and the lectionary in their pocket. I once corrected one of my teens for looking at their smart phone during Mass only to find out that she was following along the scripture reading. And how many lay people who have tried to use the liturgy of the hours in their personal prayer have been put off by jumping around the breviary between all the ribbons? Not to worry – online websites and phone apps now put the day’s divine office together for you, so you can just let your phone, Ipad, or computer lead you through your prayer undistracted.
Moving from prayer to catechesis, we find that the new forms of media have made Church doctrine accessible everywhere by virtually anyone. Everything from the Scriptures to the Catechism to the writings of the Fathers, saints, and popes can now be accessed by not only computers but phones.
But something that has always been true about people is even truer today in this brave new social media world – less is more. A “tweet” shared via twitter is limited to 146 characters. Quotes are more likely to get attention than dissertations.
As religious educators, we can and should use the technology on a small scale to feed, instruct, and inspire the limited flock entrusted to our care.
But the task of the New Evangelization is to share the gospel with the entire world. And for the first time, the ability to speak to virtually the whole world is available to the average person, through the global reach of social media. If Facebook were a country, it would be the forth largest in the world. Some stars of stage and screen have more Twitter “followers” than the combined population of Norway, Israel, and Holland. People can “share” a post I make on Facebook or “retweet” something I send out via twitter. When their friends or followers do likewise, my communication “goes viral.”
Last week I used a group texting app to share scripture quotes privately with seven people in my family. During the same week I shared thoughts publicly through my Facebook page. Facebook statistics told me that my communications reached over 293,000 people and over 15,000 of them were “talking about” what I shared.
And this gets to a final an important point. Social media is not static, but dynamic. It’s hallmark is interaction – facebook has its famous “like” button, but also has options to comment on a post or to share it with friends. You know whether or not you are hitting your target.
And a second hallmark of social media is that its use is sequestered off from daily life. It is not limited to a class that meets three times per week or a TV show that you have to make 30 minutes for on Thursday evenings. Rather, it is everywhere, always.
Which is exactly where we want to get the truth of the gospel. Back into everyday life, and back to people for whom it has become irrelevant.
So social media presents us with both a great opportunity and a challenge. Dull content will never “go viral” even if it is true. We must use all the creativity at our disposal to communicate truth in text, image, and video in a witty, intriguing way that makes people want to hit the “retweet” and “share” buttons.
Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For more on his resources and his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, visit him at www.dritaly.com, facebook/Dr.Italy, and twitter.com/DrItaly.