Forty-four years ago today, the Church established World Communications Day to celebrate the opportunities available for evangelization through the new media. Here, Father Steve explains why this day is especially relevant to Word on Fire.
According to stats provided courtesy of Matthew Warner
, if Facebook were a country, it would be the world’s 4th largest. Further, there are now well over 200,000,000 blogs and social media is the number one activity for web users. Finally, getting back to Facebook, more than 1.5 million pieces of content are shared daily on this social networking site alone. Innovations in media technology has created a new cultural environment whose reality demonstrates time and time again that it is a force to be reckoned with. This new media culture has affected language and social relationships. It enables possibilities for human interaction that render the boundaries of time, distance and national borders porous. Whether or not we want to count all this as positive or negative, the fact of the matter is that communication technologies have changed the world.
Forty-four years ago the Holy See established “World Communications Day” to be commemorated on May 16th. What is being celebrated today are not the technologies themselves, but the opportunities for evangelization that the new media can accomplish. The Church has tools at its disposal that have never before existed and just as the vast network of Roman roads, the use of moveable type, radio and television have all been utilized by the Church to fulfill its missionary mandate, so now the digital technologies of today must also be used. The fact of the matter is that they already are being resourced by the faithful. I like to think of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries as being a pioneer in this regard.
In my estimation, the first forays of the Church into the digital world seemed to be more about facilitating what might be described as bureaucratic relationships. Committees and sub-committees were formed to manage and implement and in many cases curtail the application of new technologies. Diocesan and Parish websites were encouraged, but the templates that emerged were unimaginative and more about information rather than evangelization. In the uncanny working of Providence, the pontificate of John Paul II, which was so characterized by an insistence that the Church move beyond its self preoccupation with Church polity and engage the culture emerged at nearly the same moment as digital technologies were taking hold. Father Barron also saw the possibilities inherent in the developing digital world to take evangelization from theory into practice and the mission of Word on Fire commenced.
We have come a long way since then- travelling both literally and digitally around the world and back again.
Pope Benedict has likened the world wide web as a new kind of “Court of the Gentiles” but as much as I agree with the Holy Father on most everything, my own experience working as a missionary to this new world finds that comparison not all that apt. The Court of the Gentiles was part of the complex of buildings that surrounded the great Jerusalem Temple. As such, this space, allocated by Israel to outsiders, was a place where Gentiles would come on Israel’s terms. The world wide web is part of a complex of modern realities that surround the great Temple of Christ’s Body, but these realities have not been built and do not exist on the Church’s terms. Upon entering these precincts one discovers a decidedly secular space that has been constructed to represent the ethos of modernity.
Rather than the Court of the Gentiles, the digital world is like the Agora which Paul entered in Athens or the Forum that Peter traversed in Rome. And our mission in this new Agora, this new Forum, is not just to bring Christ into this new culture, but to bring this new culture to Christ. In other words, we have to go out from the familiarities of the Church’s culture in order to draw people into relationship with Christ in his Church. Both Peter and Paul believed that the worlds of the Agora and the Forum were destined to belong to Christ despite how resistant and strange they were. Their successors should operate with the same act of faith in regards to the digital world. The first missionaries saw the pagan world as something that Christ wanted for himself, and in obedience to the Lord, they went out into that world and brought it back to Him.
The Holy Father has asked that priests give consideration to making themselves a real presence in the digital world. In Pope Benedict’s own words: “to priests in particular the new media offer ever new and far reaching pastoral possibilities, encouraging them to embody the universality of the Church’s mission.” I believe that this invitation, if accepted, has the potential to restore vitality to the life of priests because it compels us beyond the predictable certitudes and narrow concerns of the ecclesiastical status quo. The forums of the digital world inevitably bring us into contact with those who do not know Christ and even those who hate him, and this forces us to deepen our own relationship with the Lord and formulate responses that go well beyond pious sentimentality or churchy jargon. It would be easy to tap into the tribalism that has come to characterize so much of digital culture and limit our attention to only those who agree with us, but if we do this, we are not missionaries and our efforts cannot be characterized as evangelization.
But of course, the condition for the possibility of bringing the digital culture to Christ is a steadfast regard to the Lord whom we serve. We cannot proclaim what we ourselves do not know. We cannot help others to understand a Faith that we ourselves give little time to comprehend. In order for our invitation to be taken seriously, it must be, in Pope Benedict’s words, not only “focused, efficient and compelling” and our use of technology must be “competent and appropriate” but our testimony must be to the “Gospel of Jesus, the eternal Son who came among us for our salvation.” Evangelization requires evangelists, but those who would authentically proclaim Christ must direct attention away from themselves and towards the Lord.
When I was a boy, I used to trace with my finger the journeys of St. Paul as they were depicted in the maps of my Bible. I imagined myself what the strange lands must have looked like and what kind of people St. Paul encountered. I could not have fathomed at that time that many years later the Lord, through Word on Fire, would take me to those very places and show me the remains of the world that St. Paul believed that Christ had made worthy of redemption. But stranger still is the uncanny Providence that invited me through Father Barron’s apostolate to embark on a very real missionary adventure of my own, traveling not as St. Paul did along Roman Roads or the wine dark sea of the Mediterranean, but along the digital paths of the contemporary media culture. I, too, have found, as St. Paul did, a world that Christ has made worthy of redemption.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.