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A Network Not of Wires but of People

A Network Not of Wires but of People Seranya Photography

Seranya Photography

Eugene Gan - published on 01/26/14

Analyzing Pope Francis’ first World Communications Day speech.

The Holy Father’s World Communications Day message for 2014, which is annually released on January 24, the Feast of Saint Francis de Sales, the patron of shopping, wait, no, I mean the patron of journalists and writers is out now and is titled “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter.” It’s an elegantly simple message, but one that can also shock an audience today. I can’t wait to unpack it with you! Ten short paragraphs; ten short explications:

“Today we are living in a world which is growing ever “smaller” and where, as a result, it would seem to be easier for all of us to be neighbours.  Developments in travel and communications technology are bringing us closer together and making us more connected, even as globalization makes us increasingly interdependent.  Nonetheless, divisions, which are sometimes quite deep, continue to exist within our human family.  On the global level we see a scandalous gap between the opulence of the wealthy and the utter destitution of the poor.  Often we need only walk the streets of a city to see the contrast between people living on the street and the brilliant lights of the store windows.  We have become so accustomed to these things that they no longer unsettle us.  Our world suffers from many forms of exclusion, marginalization and poverty, to say nothing of conflicts born of a combination of economic, political, ideological, and, sadly, even religious motives.”

Ok, he begins with what we already know: we’re living in a connected world. That should bring us closer together right? The unfortunate answer is a big no, media communication technologies don’t solve our human problems. Just because I can so easily Skype with others who aren’t physically close by doesn’t automatically mean that I’m at peace with them. Media isn’t magic. I like the visual language our Holy Father uses: “Often we need only walk the streets of a city to see the contrast between people living on the street and the brilliant lights of the store windows”. Aren’t we unsettled by such a scene anymore? Do we think that they ought to find a job and feed themselves like the rest of us, or have we grown so accustomed to such scenes that we no longer care? We tell ourselves: I’m so busy I don’t have time to care. It’s not my problem. Maybe it’s the State’s problem. And then if perhaps a modicum of concern lingers, we console ourselves with the thought: I can’t do much for them anyhow so why waste time dwelling on it?

“In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all.  Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity.  The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another.  We need to resolve our differences through forms of dialogue which help us grow in understanding and mutual respect.  A culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give, but also to receive.  Media can help us greatly in this, especially nowadays, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances.  The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity.  This is something truly good, a gift from God.”

But the Holy Father reminds us that media can help: it can “inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure” human dignity is upheld if – and this is a big IF – “we are prepared to listen and learn from one another.” There’s the rub, isn’t it? Communication is not only about speaking, about transmitting messages. Just as importantly, if not more so, it is also about active silence – listening attentively. Too often when we are in conversations, instead of listening to the other person, we’re thinking about what we’re going to say next even while the other person is speaking! The Holy Father affirms that the connectivity of the online world is not the problem. Far from it, he says it is “gift from God”! This is not some new sentiment. No, the Catholic Church has been implicitly and explicitly saying that media is “gift of God” since its first official media document released in 1936!

“This is not to say that certain problems do not exist.  The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgement, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression.  The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests.  The world of communications can help us either to expand our knowledge or to lose our bearings.  The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbours, from those closest to us.  We should not overlook the fact that those who for whatever reason lack access to social media run the risk of being left behind.”

But like any gift, it can be misused. “The speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgment, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression.” The irony is that with so much information at our fingertips, we can lose ourselves, drowning in the digital ocean and unable to find our way. The experience is familiar: if we’re not careful, our day can be spent meandering the places that the links we click take us to, and before we know it, the whole day’s gone. Just like that. The irony doesn’t stop there: our connectivity with those faraway can isolate us from those closest to us!

“While these drawbacks are real, they do not justify rejecting social media; rather, they remind us that communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement.  What is it, then, that helps us, in the digital environment, to grow in humanity and mutual understanding?  We need, for example, to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm.  This calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen.  We need also to be patient if we want to understand those who are different from us.  People only express themselves fully when they are not merely tolerated, but know that they are truly accepted.  If we are genuinely attentive in listening to others, we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and come to appreciate the richness of human experience as manifested in different cultures and traditions.  We will also learn to appreciate more fully the important values inspired by Christianity, such as the vision of the human person, the nature of marriage and the family, the proper distinction between the religious and political spheres, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, and many others.”

Now, after highlighting some the problems in our media culture, our Holy Father quickly adds: but don’t reject social media! It’s not a technological problem, but a human one. The solution (though a challenge to practice daily) is simple: balance in the form of “deliberateness and calm” and upholding human dignity in the form of “the ability to be silent and to listen.” The “deliberateness and calm” allows us to move forward with clear intent and firm faith in God’s plan, while “ability to be silent and to listen” allows us both to discover God’s plan and our connection with those we encounter. He’s talking about living as God’s children and seeing the whole sphere of human activities with a joy-filled and hope-filled vision. This isn’t some wishy-washy, pie-in-the-sky idealism, but a very down-to-earth and anchored hope in Jesus Christ who is our triumphant God!

“How, then, can communication be at the service of an authentic culture of encounter?  What does it mean for us, as disciples of the Lord, to encounter others in the light of the Gospel?  In spite of our own limitations and sinfulness, how do we draw truly close to one another?  These questions are summed up in what a scribe – a communicator – once asked Jesus: “And who is my neighbour?” (Lk 10:29). This question can help us to see communication in terms of “neighbourliness”.  We might paraphrase the question in this way: How can we be “neighbourly” in our use of the communications media and in the new environment created by digital technology?  I find an answer in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which is also a parable about communication.  Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbours.  The Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him.  Jesus shifts our understanding: it is not just about seeing the other as someone like myself, but of the ability to make myself like the other.  Communication is really about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God.  I like seeing this power of communication as “neighbourliness”.”

Our Holy Father puts on the hat of teacher now. He poses the question that connects his preceding thoughts: “How can we be “neighbourly” in our use of the communications media and in the new environment created by digital technology?” His answer? Look to the well-known parable of the The Good Samaritan. At this point, I want to simply point you to our Holy Father’s own words in making the parable relevant for our media day and age:

“Whenever communication is primarily aimed at promoting consumption or manipulating others, we are dealing with a form of violent aggression like that suffered by the man in the parable, who was beaten by robbers and left abandoned on the road.  The Levite and the priest do not regard him as a neighbour, but as a stranger to be kept at a distance.  In those days, it was rules of ritual purity which conditioned their response.  Nowadays there is a danger that certain media so condition our responses that we fail to see our real neighbour.

“It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply “connected”; connections need to grow into true encounters.  We cannot live apart, closed in on ourselves.  We need to love and to be loved.  We need tenderness.  Media strategies do not ensure beauty, goodness and truth in communication.  The world of media also has to be concerned with humanity, it too is called to show tenderness.  The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people.  The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others.  Personal engagement is the basis of the trustworthiness of a communicator.  Christian witness, thanks to the internet, can thereby reach the peripheries of human existence.”

Did you hear that? A network not of wires but of people. The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others. What does that mean? Our Holy Father answers in the next line: personal engagement. Personal engagement – that sincere concern for another together with being honest with myself , being the real me – makes my communication trustworthy. This is how we must and can proclaim the Gospel, the Good News.

“As I have frequently observed, if a choice has to be made between a bruised Church which goes out to the streets and a Church suffering from self-absorption, I certainly prefer the first.  Those “streets” are the world where people live and where they can be reached, both effectively and affectively.  The digital highway is one of them, a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope.  By means of the internet, the Christian message can reach “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).  Keeping the doors of our churches open also means keeping them open in the digital environment so that people, whatever their situation in life, can enter, and so that the Gospel can go out to reach everyone.  We are called to show that the Church is the home of all.  Are we capable of communicating the image of such a Church?  Communication is a means of expressing the missionary vocation of the entire Church; today the social networks are one way to experience this call to discover the beauty of faith, the beauty of encountering Christ.  In the area of communications too, we need a Church capable of bringing warmth and of stirring hearts.”

Our Holy Father tells us his preference: “if a choice has to be made between a bruised Church which goes out to the streets and a Church suffering from self-absorption, I certainly prefer the first.” It’s like the saying: if you’re on your way to Mass and see someone in need of help, help that person first. The online world is an extension of the real world. Real people are present in the online world. Real people with hurts and fears, with hopes and longings, and we are to be there with them, with the real people that God puts in our path.

“Effective Christian witness is not about bombarding people with religious messages, but about our willingness to be available to others “by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence” (Benedict XVI, Message for the 47th World Communications Day, 2013).  We need but recall the story of the disciples on the way to Emmaus.  We have to be able to dialogue with the men and women of today, to understand their expectations, doubts and hopes, and to bring them the Gospel, Jesus Christ himself, God incarnate, who died and rose to free us from sin and death.  We are challenged to be people of depth, attentive to what is happening around us and spiritually alert.  To dialogue means to believe that the “other” has something worthwhile to say, and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective.  Engaging in dialogue does not mean renouncing our own ideas and traditions, but the claim that they alone are valid or absolute.”

This is certainly not about adopting some kind of “holier-than-thou” attitude. This is not about me “saving the world” as much as it’s about being a real friend, even with all my weaknesses, to real people we encounter through the media. This is about experiencing first for ourselves and then sharing with others that “the Church is the home of all”, and to be transparent and say (and pray) confidently: Jesus, shine forth through me! That I may be a lamp on a lampstand (Matthew 5:15-16)! The Catholic worldview is unafraid: we acknowledge truth wherever it is found (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church #819). Let’s acknowledge truth when we hear it from others we encounter online and build our dialog on those truths!

“May the image of the Good Samaritan who tended to the wounds of the injured man by pouring oil and wine over them be our inspiration.  Let our communication be a balm which relieves pain and a fine wine which gladdens hearts.  May the light we bring to others not be the result of cosmetics or special effects, but rather of our being loving and merciful “neighbours” to those wounded and left on the side of the road.  Let us boldly become citizens of the digital world.  The Church needs to be concerned for, and present in, the world of communication, in order to dialogue with people today and to help them encounter Christ.  She needs to be a Church at the side of others, capable of accompanying everyone along the way.  The revolution taking place in communications media and in information technologies represents a great and thrilling challenge; may we respond to that challenge with fresh energy and imagination as we seek to share with others the beauty of God.

“From the Vatican, 24 January 2014, the Memorial of Saint Francis de Sales.


The task of being online should not be drudgery! Sadness is an ally to Satan. Our God wants his children to be joy-filled! “Let us boldly become citizens of the digital world!” Our Holy Father affirms. And by the way, when he says, “May the light we bring to others not be the result of cosmetics or special effects…” I seriously doubt he’s saying to do away with learning all the cool stuff we can do with special effects (full disclosure: I teach my students how to create special effects on the computer!) What I believe he means is that “cosmetics and special effects” alone can be rather bereft of meaning (my words of course, not his), but must instead be built upon real substance, which is a genuine concern and care for the real people we encounter. Our Holy Father says it so well: together, we can each share the beauty of God “with fresh energy and imagination.”

And isn’t it neat the way our loving Holy Father signs off his letter? Francis. Simply “Francis”.

Dr. Eugene Gan is faculty associate of the Veritas Center and Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States. His book, Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media is grounded in Scripture and magisterial documents, and is a handbook and practical guide for understanding and engaging media in meaningful and healthy ways in daily life.

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