Pope Benedict XVI's message for today's World Day of Communications encourages us to use every means of communications to spread the Gospel. Amen. "The spread of multimedia communications and its rich 'menu of options' might make us think it sufficient simply to be present on the Web," but priests are "challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources," he said. A presence on the web, said the Holy Father, "precisely because it brings us into contact with the followers of other religions, nonbelievers and people of every culture, requires sensitivity to those who do not believe, the disheartened and those who have a deep, unarticulated desire for enduring truth and the absolute." Here's a summary of the story in The Washington Post. And here is the full text of the pope's message, "The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in the Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word."
This is an essential message for all those in the Catholic church who disparage new media. About ten years ago I remember speaking with a long-time observer of the Catholic church, and asking why so few Catholic leaders--especially some in the hierarchy at the time--seemed to have so little to say about television. "They don't watch it," he said bluntly. It was infra dig. That was pretty shocking, and it reminded me of someone who told me that those who proudly say that they don't watch television are actually saying that they know nothing about the culture in which we live.
Today the same could be said about the new media--the Internet, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. Some of these developments, to be sure, are a mixed bag, a blessing and a curse, to borrow from Scripture. (What man-made creation isn't?) The Internet, which boasts Wikipedia and thousands of sites for reputable news sources, can sometimes seem like Newton Minow's famous "vast wasteland," filled with hate-filled blogs and, well, pornography. (One of the most popular songs from the musical "Avenue Q" is "The Internet is for Porn.") Youtube, a marvelous place to find clips of movies and songs that you thought you'd never see or hear again, is also the home of, well, more porn. Facebook, a terrific way to keep up with friends and trade photos, is also the originator of the minute-by-minute account from "friends" telling you that they're cleaning their bathroom.
But guess what? That's where people are congregating today and if we want to emulate Jesus we should remember that he went out to see people, rather than simply letting them come to him. (He did some of the latter, but much more of the former.) The history of Christianity is in large part the history of the church using to great effect the latest media, sometimes even inventing media, to evangelize.
And it starts at the beginning. In the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth is peripatetic in the extreme, always moving from one town to the other, going to where the people are. (And, by the way, for those who lament the "speed" or "immediacy" of the new media, and prefer the slower--and therefore, better--pace of the older forms, you might remember that Jesus is often does things "immediately," a word used over 40 times in the Gospel of Mark.) More importantly, Jesus used the language of the day to communicate with people. He employed a medium that people would understand. C.H. Dodd, the great Scripture scholar, in his book The Parables and the Kingdom, defines a parable as follows: "At its simplest the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought." Jesus, therefore, used an accessible medium that people would understand--a story with familiar elements--to convey his truth.
Later, St. Paul embraces another medium--letters--to evangelize and to keep together the fractious group of young Christian communities. When the lector proclaims, "A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans," we are hearing the proclamation through a particular medium. Still later, St. Augustine of Hippo, in the fourth century, practically invented a new medium, the autobiography, to tell the story of his conversion and his "late love" of God; his Confessions. (That story is told in this week's New Yorker, another medium.) St. Teresa of Avila made us of the autobiography as well, as did St. Ignatius Loyola. Their contemporary, St. Francis Xavier, in his own peripatetic wanderings, used all sorts of media to bring the message of Christianity to far-flung lands (at least far-flung for him) including composing songs in local languages to convey the truths of the faith. Even a partial list of Catholic thinkers who have used books, essays, pamphlets and magazines would, well, fill a book: most of the saints wrote; some, like St. Alberto Hurtado, founded magazines--his Mensaje, in Chile, is still published. And of course television, which is still derided in some circles as infra dig, was used to great effect by a man who is now being mentioned for canonization: Bishop Fulton Sheen. Eager to see him today? Try Youtube.
So why not the new media? Why not use Facebook? Why not post to Youtube? Why not blog? Why not even tweet? Those who dismiss it, mock it or even condemn it are missing something important. Something urgent. As Pope Benedict says, "it brings us into contact" with a great many people--believers and non-believers alike. So why not opinion blogs and websites like Dotcommonweal and TheAnchoress and Bustedhalo and The Deacon's Bench? Why not InsideCatholic and All Things Catholic and WhispersintheLoggia? Why not sites on prayer like the wildly popular Irish Sacred Space, or an online news magazine like the Australian Eureka Street? Moreover, why not ground-breaking episcopal blogs like Cardinal Sean O'Malley's widely read one, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan's new one? Why not online Catholic networks like NET and Catholic TV. Why not?, says the pope today.
We go there because that is where the people are. And where the people are, there the Gospel needs to be.