Part of the Word on Fire team went West this week, digitally pioneering their way through the Catholic New Media Conference— updating their statuses, taking notes on APIs and APPs, social networking with other new evangelists and taking in all of the glory of this 21st century Catholic evangelical landscape. But this journey has had its share of surprises and discoveries. Father Steve shares his experiences— as well as a bit about the inherent both/and to be sought in these modern expressions of the Good News.
Yesterday, the intrepid adventurers from Word on Fire arrived in Arlington, Texas, for the Catholic New Media Conference. Upon arrival, I remarked to the team that we had entered the territory of J.R. Ewing and wondered if we might have time to visit Southfork Ranch. I could tell by their befuddled faces that I had plummeted, not just stumbled, into the generation gap. “None of you- not even one of you- has ever heard of the TV show “Dallas.” “No, Father.” At that moment I imagined myself as not only a “Father”, but as Methuselah. They listened politely as I described for them the manner in which the evening soap opera “Dallas” had seized hold of the popular culture, spawned a host of imitations, and had held the nation in suspense as it speculated as to who had shot J.R. Ewing. Listen they did, in the same manner one listens as an elder recounts memories of a time long ago.
The next day, suspecting that my staff’s cluelessness in regards a pop cultural phenomenon that had once graced the cover of Time magazine was some kind of fluke, I turned to the ever cheerful Brandon Vogt and inquired as to whether or not he had ever heard of “Dallas.” “What year was that on, Father (Methusalah)?” I said, “I think the 1980’s”. Brandon then let me know that I was talking about a TV show that he could only have experienced “in utero.” Thus his memories of it were likely scant. I thought to myself about myself: “Sic transit gloria mundi.”
But I digress, as the aged are often inclined to do, from the point of the story.
The Catholic New Media Conference brings together from here, there and everywhere, all those folks who are swimming, sailing, or treading water in the vast digital sea. Talk of Apps, SEOs, and algorithms buzzes through presentations by experts who are either established or self-proclaimed experts in their fields. The effectiveness of email lists versus twitter and facebook feeds is debated. We were warned this year of the imminent transition of desktop giving way to mobile platforms. “Are we ready?” we were asked, in the same tone that one is warned that one should stock up on batteries and canned goods. As one of the elders in the room I wonder if at times if the moderators might turn to me and ask if I share stories of what life was like prior to the dawn of the digital age. “Yes, I remember when digital evoked a kind of wristwatch created by Texas Instruments”- which I am sure is a Texas reference that is as opaque to the current generation as my descriptions of the TV show “Dallas.”
My silliness aside, these folks are all about something of paramount importance to the Church, which is facing a revolutionary moment in communication that is as significant as Gutenberg’s movable type. The world has changed and is changing as a result of digital communication technologies. Take as an example how, in terms of Catholic media, the leading journals of opinion could formerly be noted by numbering them all on the fingers of two hands. Now, this number has exploded into a vast international commentariat that includes not just type, but video. The world has changed, and we see its changes via screen.
Wednesday’s sessions focused on the digital guts of this communication revolution. “Guts” is the right word because as meek and introverted as many of these folks might seem to outsiders, they have the audacious courage of pioneers.
I really mean that. These folks are the pioneers, and the trail they blaze will light the Church’s path into the future.
The Catholic New Media Conference is accompanied by something called the Catholic Marketing Network, at which Catholic themed products are accumulated and displayed in one giant room for all to behold. Word on Fire has some space reserved this year in the booth of one of our distributors. The odor of scented candles, rather than incense, wafts through the air. Images of bejeweled Madonnas and brightly painted saints hold court. There are enough crucifixes to expel all the world’s vampires in one fell swoop. Catholic themed coloring books are perused alongside copies of St. Augustine’s “Confessions.” (St. Augustine is a hot property this year with the release of a new movie about his life entitled “Restless Heart.”) Breathless and urgent whispers murmur about who or what is dominating the “Catholic space” for the coming year. Haven’t we heard of Father so and so? His books are selling out faster than they can be printed. Order now before it is too late!
All this evoked a kind of Catholic sensory overload in myself and members of the Word on Fire team. Once we came to our senses, I discussed with them Blessed John Henry Newman’s distinction between real and notional assent and how the Catholic Faith allows and integrates the two. On a practical level this means that there is room in the “Catholic space” for not only Father Barron’s CATHOLICISM, but also for saints painted to glitter and glow to like the creatures of Stephanie Meyer’s “Twilight” series along with pillowcases that are imprinted with an image of the Sacred Heart. Catholic sacramentality is so generous that even kitsch is permitted to be a route of access to the mysteries of the Faith. The team listened attentively and respectively to Methuselah. I must say that I was a little bit afraid that with my recollections of old TV programs and of the years before the digital revolution that they just might be thinking that in my youth I had known Cardinal Newman.
“Sic transit Gloria mundi.”
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries
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