By this point, Catholics listening to Pope Francis’ ongoing messages to the world can feel comfortable that renewing social communication in all its forms, but especially in the digital realm, is one of his priorities. This applies to the Church and the secular sphere, to faith-embracing people and “nons” alike. He spoke about it in his Pentecost homily for 2019, connecting it to the Holy Spirit’s work of peace building, and also to some key themes he raised in “Christus Vivit” (his 2019 exhortation to young people) and his 2018 and 2019 messages for World Communications Day.
I believe he’s saying we need to help bring the basic Christian value of peace back into our understanding of what constitutes fruitful communication. So many people are playing the journalist, not only consuming news but generating news through their social media, often without a sense of accountability for toxic thoughts they’re soaking in and emotions they’re promulgating. Pope Francis offers pastoral advice regarding the lively cyberspace exchanges of information, our dual roles as news consumers and news generators, the spirit of purpose, pleasure and peace we must bring to community conversations, and the respect for complex human dignity and the sense of receptivity we should bring to encounters in the public square. Defaming others without accountability, short attention spans that jump to conclusions, oversimplified labels dismissing people, and the manipulation of truth are reducing our mutual trust and our sense that peaceful communication will lead to the solutions we need to properly preserve the common good.
In his homily Pope Francis cautioned that, “in the age of the computer,” we feel more distanced and isolated from each other, and “the more we use social media, the less social we are becoming.” We are at risk of spreading “a culture of lies.”
In that same timeframe, he also spoke about the particular dangers our digitized culture present to young people, a message that applies just as well to people of all ages. In “Christus Vivit,” his exhortation drawn from the Synod on Youth that took place in Rome in 2019, he said this (paragraph 216).
“Today’s media culture creates a deep sense of orphanhood. We need to build “fraternal environments” in our parishes, as well as in our communities and families, where young people can rise above isolation and experience a sense of belonging and shared purpose. Rather than being distracted by video games, they deserve to be in places of multigenerational dialogue, memory, aspirations and action attuned to the things that matter most in life.” The sense of belonging and shared purpose the Pope calls for here can only flourish if it has a commitment to peaceful communication as its foundation.
These messages align with Pope Francis’ 2018 and 2019 messages for World Communications Day (an annual pause for reflection, initiated by the Second Vatican Council and its document Inter Mirifica).
In the 2019 message, he cautioned that the “community” model practiced in social media is too often one of excluding people and ideas with which you differ. The Church idea of community, he said, is based on communion with Something higher that brings us together in humility via similar beliefs and motivations. The Eucharist and other sacraments increase our awareness of our shared identity as a Body of Christ that is one although comprised of many parts, all of which have unique, beautiful, God-given gifts to be shared.
The pope’s 2018 message called for a “journalism of peace” that proactively asks deeper questions in order to help us find areas of common ground while pursuing an “education for truth” that springs from journalists valuing absolute truth and inspiring others to desire it. A relativism that allows us to define our own truths on the basis of emotion and individually-defined primacy combined with an urgent personal moralism where one unilaterally judges right and wrong functions as an evil force that often winds up promoting the opposite of truth.
A growing body of work by the Pope is asking us to offer peaceful communication as the tool that will heal our culture and reunite us after the separation our initial experience of social media has caused. Peace is rooted in a personal, receptive relationship with the Lord and is manifested through the Holy Spirit’s everyday influence on our lives. It gives us the love and forgiveness by which we can communicate with others as merciful fellow sinners, fellow seekers of truth who can find great joy and encouragement in local avenues of discovery. We are to embrace the Truth, the Way and the Life as we actively follow Him rather than sitting on the beach in judgement of others or marching off to war against them. (Enter here the as yet undefined secular equivalent of relationship with the Lord, etc.)
Pentecost comes at the verge of summer, a time when we can be more reflective and receptive about the best ways to work together. The Paraclete will help us to speak in peaceful ways that others understand. Our faith in Christ and our communion through the sacraments and the “Amen” we say together at every liturgy will help us to focus on the things we can accomplish as a diverse mix of old and young, rich and poor, robust Catholic and open-minded “non,” so long as we stay in a steady motion that supercedes the vacuum of laziness and distraction that summer often invites us to. Such a void will inevitably be filled by popular culture’s tendencies toward narcissism, isolation and escape from painful realities.
Pope Francis reminded us in his 2018 World Communications Day message that we must be instruments of peace and stewards of the “Good News,” sharing a sense of sacrifice, wonder and duty that brings us together, rather than driving us apart. He even ended the message with a version of the Peace Prayer of Saint Francis to remind us that communicators fully engaged in peace have to put our lives where our words are. “Love always communicates.”
I’m committed to encouraging fellow Catholics in the power of inclusive peaceful conversation. Our use of digital media can produce great fruits if we understand that it entails both rights and responsibilities, has room for both faith and reason, and can reconcile all minds and hearts. The use of these remarkable communication tools should carry us toward a flesh-and-blood community where “many parts” all enjoy freedom and authenticity in recognition of the infinite worth of each and every soul.
As Francis said in his homily, ”the Spirit is far from being an abstract reality; He is the Person who is the most concrete and close.” He is the one who changes our lives by immersing us in the Love and Grace of God if we allow Him in between the latest video games and our summertime distractions. Self-satisfied temptations to lounge around, ignorant while others are defamed, excluded, and orphaned, make our summer vocations unsustainable. We must actively accompany all persons “toward a life worthy of a people redeemed by Christ” (SFO Rule article 13), for they are all of indescribable worth.
The story of us doing this should be, as the pontiff describes it, “the heart of the news.”
This is the story that should be trending.
(The above was adapted from a page from my blog, Onword.net. It was written last year, shortly after the 2019 World Communications Day. For more on the Pope’s 2018 World Communications Day message, see my book, When Headlines Hurt.)