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Online Catholic Community? Let’s Get Real

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Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ - published on 10/09/14

Web-friendships will never replace "heart speaks unto heart" conversations with the real people

When was the last time you wanted to jump up and shout, “Wait a minute! That can’t be right!”? That happened to me a few weeks ago. I heard a fellow gushing about how social media was the linchpin of the New Evangelization. I listened with an open mind. Then he began to extol the merits of the Internet’s social media, especially its audio/video elements, over and above the merits of the printed word.

He declared that, “Text is boring. It can only be used to impart information. Text cannot spark the imagination or stir emotion. Text cannot be used to form community. With the advent of the Internet and social media, we can begin to move hearts and form communities in the virtual world in a way that printed words on a page could never do.”

That’s when my inclination to jump up and shout emerged.

Apparently, he’s not heard of (much less read) the Rule of Saint Benedict or the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola, texts which have been forming communities for centuries. I doubt he’s encountered Dante’s "Divine Comedy" which surely stirred imaginations (although the speaker did give a favorable mention to pop-up books, so I hold out some hope he might encounter Dante someday). Has he read the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning? Lots of emotional content available there. "The Lord of the Rings"? "Narnia"? (The movie adaptations don’t count.)

It discourages me, but doesn’t surprise me, to meet an enthusiastic young person who swoons over social media but gives no evidence of a habit of serious reading. What alarms me, however, is what appears to be an ignorance of the harmful effects upon Catholic life that stem from an uncritical celebration of the assertion that “the Internet/social media are going to save us.” Let me give a few examples.

In "Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers," T. David Gordon wrote that one reason Johnny can’t preach is not so much because of what’s taught at the seminary (which may be just fine) but because of what Johnny brings to the seminary — an attention span and moral imagination stunted by a diet of television and the Internet/social media. Neil Postman appears as a prophet now, sounding the alarm about the overwhelming influence of television back in 1987 with his classic "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business." (I will include some more references at the end of this piece.) Both authors make clear that an uncritical reliance on electronic media can hamper people’s ability to receive the Gospel, rather than expand it. Anyone who doubts that hasn’t spent the past 20 years reading student essays and engaging students in conversation, as I have.

What I find especially alarming about the uncritical advocates of “virtual communities” is that they seem unaware that “virtual” communities are not real communities — indeed, they can be distractions from, or, worse, substitutes for real community life. Virtual communities can be turned on and off at will; they don’t make real demands of personal presence and vulnerability; they can’t make moral claims on our time and our undivided attention. But real people and real communities can. And that’s why I think some people flee to the ether of the “virtual” — it’s just too much damned work dealing with the person at the other end of the breakfast table, whether at the family home, the rectory or the convent. Online, there is always somewhere else to go if the virtual community calls forth too much effort, intimacy or accountability. The people in our homes, our religious houses, our parishes, you know — the people who are right there in front of us — well, they just stay themselves all the time. And they have a bad habit of knowing our faults and our broken promises. How much easier it is to open a new tab in the web browser, or follow another Twitter account, or to find a new set of “friends” on Facebook. Used with lots of enthusiasm but little prudence, these various social media compress our imagination, preclude contemplative stillness, purge silence, and distance us from the very real people who need us — people who, by the way, are made in the image and likeness of God.

“But Father! Aren’t you contradicting yourself? Aren’t you using a medium that you are condemning?” Well, I’m not condemning anything or anyone, and at the end of this I will ask you to shut down your computer, as you will see in a moment. Jesuits have been pioneers in the Ministry of the Word for centuries. Yes, let’s use all available media to reach people, but reaching them is not enough. Where shall we lead them, and how shall we help to form them? In the rush to social media, those questions seem overlooked. Once we get people’s attention, how shall we meet their authentic human and spiritual needs? All people, but especially our youth, hunger for genuine community, truly shared values and cultivated common interests. Let me give two examples.

A couple of times per semester, I host “Jesuit Reading Night” for students. We cook a simple meal, we gather around the table, and we eat dinner like a family. The high point of the evening is when we go around the table and recite poetry, sometimes our own, sometimes that of others, sometimes from memory, sometimes from a text. We spend hours in the same room, talking to each other, making eye contact, forming memories and bonds. No electronics involved. The only complaint is that I don’t host these dinners often enough.

On Sundays, after Mass, I invite students to the local coffee shop for what is now known as a “Post-homiletic postmortem.” We evaluate my homily (both form and content), we discuss the Scriptures of the day (texts which pre-date the Internet by quite a bit of time, as I recall), and we talk about what God is doing in our lives. Hours of talking, lots of eye contact, and again, forming memories and bonds. No electronics involved.

In both these instances, we choose to live as Catholics who love the Lord, love languages both written and spoken, and, most importantly, are trying very hard to learn how to love each other in person. That hard work, with its many joys, can also be frustrating. And it’s always time-consuming. That’s how real communities are formed. My students, surely influenced by the electronic world around them, nonetheless gladly put aside their gadgets’ glitz and glamor, and pay attention to each other and the presence of God that may be found there. All very unlike the noisy sparkles and attention-crushing display offered by the Internet, television, social media, and the tweets of the Pied Piper of virtual communities.

Let me end here by offering you an image (and, I hope, emotion) that, contrary to the claims of the young man I first spoke of, will be communicated only with text — with no recourse to audio or video. One night, I completed in one sitting an enthusiastic and popular book about the Church and the new media. Finishing the book, I wondered if social media could be the basis for evangelization and community formation that the author had promised. As I closed the book, the power went out — and I found myself alone, in the dark.

Here is a brief reading list about this topic.

When I next write, I will discuss some ways that we have been using very effectively to ensure that our young people do *not* become mature Catholics. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer. Now, shut down your computer, and go talk with someone real.

Father Robert McTeigue, S.J.is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.  A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.

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