Think the Church is out of step with the digital age? Our social network has been wired for 2,000 years.
It is deeply significant for the age in which we live that the only annual celebration mandated by Vatican II was the World Day of Communications, which takes place annually on January 24, the Feast of St. Francis de Sales (patron of journalists). In celebration of this event, it is now customary for the pope to release a message highlighting one aspect or another of what the Church calls “social communications.” For this year’s World Day of Communications, for example, Pope Francis has chosen as his theme “communication at the service of an authentic culture of encounter.”
Attention paid by recent popes to social communications has not been limited to this annual message. Blessed Pope John Paul II returned often to the theme, including in the final magisterial document he promulgated before his death, The Rapid Development (2005). In that document we read: “The Church would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not utilize these powerful means [of social communication] that human skill is daily rendering more perfect. It is through them that she proclaims "from the housetops” the message of which she is the depositary.”
John Paul is in fact quoting here from a document by his predecessor, Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), who apart from his ultimate responsibility for the Vatican II document on social communications,Inter Mirifica (1963), also promulgated on this theme Communio et Progressio (1971). But for papal pronouncements on social communications we can go further back to Pius XII’s Miranda Prorsus (1957), and even to Pius XI’s Vigilanti Cura(1936), which contains an absorbing catechesis on the art of the cinema written a full three years before cinema’s annus mirabilis of 1939, when Hollywood produced Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights.
What does the Church mean by social communications? On the one hand, the Church means any form of media that involves the whole community or a large segment of it–so, books, plays, newspapers, artistic performances, etc. But more specifically for us in 2014, by “social communications” the Church is principally interested in the mass media making use of the new digital technologies–websites, blogs, podcasts, social networking sites, movies, television, news media, digital music, etc.
But why does the Church make such a big deal out of social communications? To understand the answer to this question is to get to the heart of what digital media is all about, and thus to better understand the nature of the world in which we live.
In The Rapid Development, John Paul II observes that the “first Areopagus of modern times is the world of communications, which is capable of unifying humanity and transforming it into – as it is commonly referred to – “a global village.” The Areopagus, of course, is the place in Athens where St. Paul preached about the unknown god (Acts 17:24). So John Paul’s analogy would seem to indicate that the world of social communications is an arena where people are worshipping “an unknown god.”
The phrase “global village” that John Paul uses in The Rapid Development was famously coined by Marshall McLuhan, though later McLuhan preferred the phrase, “global theater.” So here’s another analogy to help illuminate the special nature of social communications in a digital age. The world of social media is a virtual and global “theater” in which we are all both spectators and actors. Combining John Paul’s two analogies, we might say that the world of digital communications is a theater where many people, especially perhaps young people, are seeking an unknown god.
In this light I would like to suggest the following theological definition of our modern social media: social media is the whole community seeking Holy Communion.
Not that checking Twitter to see who might be live tweeting the Oscars is a sacramental act. But even checking Twitter or Facebook or Google+ for the latest buzz imitates, consciously or not, the divine communion we are longing for when we approach the altar at Mass.
Consider what the Eucharist offers us:
2. The realization of our Identity as sons and daughters of God
3. Access to Supernatural Power or grace
4. Contact with the ultimate reality–that is, Truth
5. The Unity of being in communion with God and his Mystical Body
6. The terrible Beauty of consuming the sacrifice of Christ
7. A portal into Eternity
These characteristics of the Eucharist help make up a crazy acronym: “HisTube.” The ultimate destiny of social media is not YouTube but HisTube. Social media is a kind of imitation of, or precursor to, Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist and our communication with it.
In our use of social media, therefore, we seek the very things that are found par excellence in the Eucharist. We seek, that is,
2. A means of finding our Identity, our “profile” or sense of authenticity (authenticity in the digital age was the theme of Pope Benedict’s message for the 2011 World Day of Communications)
3. The ability to wield a tremendous, if not always supernatural, Power (my wife once described her iPad as giving her a magical ability to do and know all things)
4. Access, it seems, to all knowledge and Truth (what can’t you find out via Google?)
5. Unity or connectedness (Seth Godin says we no longer in an industrial economy, but in a “connection economy” made possible by the Internet)
6. Beauty via a seemingly endless supply of attractive images (digital culture is even more image-based than it is word-based)
7. Eternity, a lifting out of the everyday (in going online we look for an experience, perhaps only in the form of 15 seconds of fame, that takes us beyond the flow of time)
It would be easy to multiple examples of how very far modern social media falls short in its Eucharistic imitation. But I think it’s perhaps even more valuable to focus on the fact that “social communications” is a Eucharistic imitation, the whole community seeking Holy Communion. After all, Blessed Pope John Paul II spoke of social communications as a powerful tool that “human skill is daily rendering more perfect.” The more we focus on the way in which social media can be made more perfect in its imitation of Holy Communion, the better will we be able to use it to proclaim the Good News “from the housetops.”