Saturday, January 23, 2010

Communion and Communication

Today AP is reporting on its wire service about a simple command: "Pope to priests: Go forth and blog." According to the instructions in the Pope's new religious directive, his new "Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI for the 44th World Communications Day," the priesthood now have an obligation to master social media tools.

The theme of this year’s World Communications Day - The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word – is meant to coincide with the Church’s celebration of the Year for Priests. It focuses attention on the important and sensitive pastoral area of digital communications, in which priests can discover new possibilities for carrying out their ministry to and for the Word of God. Church communities have always used the modern media for fostering communication, engagement with society, and, increasingly, for encouraging dialogue at a wider level. Yet the recent, explosive growth and greater social impact of these media make them all the more important for a fruitful priestly ministry.

All priests have as their primary duty the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God, and the communication of his saving grace in the sacraments. Gathered and called by the Word, the Church is the sign and instrument of the communion that God creates with all people, and every priest is called to build up this communion, in Christ and with Christ. Such is the lofty dignity and beauty of the mission of the priest, which responds in a special way to the challenge raised by the Apostle Paul: “The Scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame … everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent? (Rom 10:11, 13-15).

Responding adequately to this challenge amid today’s cultural shifts, to which young people are especially sensitive, necessarily involves using new communications technologies. The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity, makes us appreciate all the more Saint Paul’s exclamation: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16) The increased availability of the new technologies demands greater responsibility on the part of those called to proclaim the Word, but it also requires them to become become more focused, efficient and compelling in their efforts. Priests stand at the threshold of a new era: as new technologies create deeper forms of relationship across greater distances, they are called to respond pastorally by putting the media ever more effectively at the service of the Word.

The spread of multimedia communications and its rich “menu of options” might make us think it sufficient simply to be present on the Web, or to see it only as a space to be filled. Yet priests can rightly be expected to be present in the world of digital communications as faithful witnesses to the Gospel, exercising their proper role as leaders of communities which increasingly express themselves with the different “voices” provided by the digital marketplace. Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis.

Using new communication technologies, priests can introduce people to the life of the Church and help our contemporaries to discover the face of Christ. They will best achieve this aim if they learn, from the time of their formation, how to use these technologies in a competent and appropriate way, shaped by sound theological insights and reflecting a strong priestly spirituality grounded in constant dialogue with the Lord. Yet priests present in the world of digital communications should be less notable for their media savvy than for their priestly heart, their closeness to Christ. This will not only enliven their pastoral outreach, but also will give a “soul” to the fabric of communications that makes up the “Web”.

As someone who has taught Paul's Epistles in a course on globalization, I find Pope Benedict's rhetoric not particularly surprising. After all, Siva Vaidhyanathan argues that Silicon Valley companies also embrace similar appeals to universalism and a similar missionary zeal. Given the Catholic church's suspicions of capitalism's grubby materialism and survival-of-the-fittest ethos, it may be surprising to hear the Pope talk about the "digital marketplace," and it also may be surprising to hear a religious organization devoted to the one word praise multiple "voices" of individual expression and a "menu of options," but this message to the masses indicates that the Pope is interested in growing the ranks of the faithful, even if he came into his position preaching for a less universal church.

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