The Virtual Areopagus
When St. Paul wanted to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth, he went to the Areopagus (see Acts 17:16 et seq.), the public square in Athens where learned pagans gathered to discuss education, philosophy, and religion. What is today’s Areopagus? Is it the town hall meeting? The school auditorium? The football stadium? While there are many physical “public squares,” we must say that the public square today is cyberspace. Two billion people use the Internet. Hundreds of millions of young people “hang out” at Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, or other social networking sites.
What would St. Paul do today? The answer is that the Church has always sought to use any and all communication tools at its disposal to communicate the gospel. Within the past century, for example, the Church launched Vatican Radio in 1931, enabling the Holy Father’s message of peace and blessing to go out to all the world. Decades later, as the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates revolutionized the political process, Archbishop Fulton Sheen transitioned from radio to television, starting his own revolution with his Emmy award-winning series Life Is Worth Living. This great work of evangelizing through the radio and television media was encouraged in the 1960s at Vatican II (see Decree on the Means of Social Communication Inter Mirifica, especially no. 13), and it’s been taken up in subsequent decades by others, most notably the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).
Since then, the Internet has exploded on the scene. Now along with radio and television, we have instantaneous social networking and text messaging in our hands in the form of smart phones. Some religious brothers and sisters even use an app (application on their cell phone) rather than a breviary to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. These and countless other technical advances are only going to increase at a continually accelerating rate. That can leave us future-shocked. Future Shock is a book by Alvin Toffler that I read in senior religion class at St. Francis High School. It’s thesis is that the world is changing at an ever-accelerating rate. If we are not firmly rooted in the transcendent—namely, Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8)—we will be overcome by stress, disorientation, and information overload. Given that in the 35 years since that class, technology has changed “virtually” everything we do—even little things, like how we get directions or book flights, are completely different now—we have to guard against future-shock.
On the other hand, in recent decades the Church increasingly has called for a “new evangelization.” Of course, “new” in this context does not imply novelty or innovation—or even a denigration of the “old” evangelization. Rather, as so fervently proclaimed by Pope John Paul II, the Church is calling for an evangelization that is “new in its ardor, methods, and expression.” Our culture needs renewal, a rebirth of faith and holiness, a new experience of divine mercy, which sets hearts aflame for Christ.
In short, we must open ourselves to the passionate ardor experienced by the disciples on the road to Emmaus, as they recalled: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” (Lk 24:32). We read later in that passage that they went back to the apostles and told them the whole story in person. (Today they might have done the same, but perhaps with a few calls and a few texts en route.)
That brings us to the rest of the Church’s vision for the “new evangelization.” A renewed personal commitment to Christ has to be the starting point, but this ardor must be communicated with new methods and new expressions. We sometimes hear about the need to inculturate the message, to adapt the presentation of the gospel to the needs and culture of the audience.
A classic example of inculturation is the work of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the Apostles to the Slavs. Cyril and Methodius, brothers from what in biblical times was known as Thessalonica, were ninth-century missionaries to the Slavic people in Eastern Europe. Not only did they learn the oral language of the people, they also developed an alphabet and written language so that the Bible and liturgical texts could be translated into the living language of the people.
Cyril and Methodius were engaged in a “new evangelization” more than a millennium before Pope John Paul II called for a “new evangelization” in our time—an evangelization that was ever new in its ardor, methods, and expressions. Cyril and Methodius are apt patrons for those of us who strive to “translate” the gospel for our under-catechized yet media-savvy culture.
We might say, then, that the inculturation of the gospel in today’s context should be called “e-culturation,” as we boldly plant the Church’s flag on this new, digital planet. Like Cyril and Methodius, we have to learn and use this new “language” even better than the natives, so that the gospel in all its clarity and power may be heard by today’s men and women.
Pope Benedict XVI has made this point several times in recent years, including this summons to evangelize the digital world in his 2009 World Communications Day address:
The proclamation of Christ in the world of new technologies requires a profound knowledge of this world if the technologies are to serve our mission adequately. It falls, in particular, to young people, who have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this “digital continent.”
Whether we’re the producers of the new media content or its online recipients, we need to avoid two major pitfalls.
First, because the technological advances in communications are so fast, dramatic, and ubiquitous, they tend to grab our attention, and understandably so. Yet, in the new evangelization, these advances must not become ends in themselves, but remain as tools to help us communicate the faith.
In this regard, the new technology is like a new pair of glasses. When we have a really good pair of glasses, we don’t notice them, but we see our world more clearly.
Similarly, the new methods of evangelization (e.g., podcasts, blogs, streaming videos, etc.) must not get in the way of the message—the gospel truth that we want others to see.
We can’t settle for high-tech productions that don’t deliver the goods, and denizens of today’s public square won’t listen to a message that is not engaging by contemporary, technological standards. Here we see the need for a prudent, balanced approach that puts all that is good in communications technology at the service of proclaiming the gospel in its fullness.
The other danger is that virtual interaction could result in the devaluation of the real thing. After all, faith comes from what is heard (Rom 10:17)—not what is downloaded. Jesus said, “You are my friends” (Jn 15:14), not “You are visitors at my site.” And when Jesus says, “Come, follow me” (Mt 19:21), he’s not inviting the rich young man to follow him on Twitter. In other words, there’s something special, even sacred, about a personal encounter—with God and with our neighbor—that the greatest technology in the world simply cannot replicate.
In the same document quoted above, the Holy Father stresses the human need for friendship. While social networking technology offers wonderful new possibilities, we must maintain the proper balanc
We should be careful . . . never to trivialize the concept or the experience of friendship. It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop online friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbors, and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education, and recreation. If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence, and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development. (2009 World Communications Day Address)
In maintaining a healthy approach to the digital world, we cannot deny its vast potential in the area of evangelization, apologetics, and catechesis. Many people have attributed their conversions at least in part to reading the right books and magazines, or listening to Catholic radio, or watching The Journey Home on EWTN.
We still have all these time-tested ways of delivering information, but now we also have the new media, which help us to carry out Pope John Paul II’s vision for an evangelization that “new in its methods and expression.”
The new media touches upon every aspect of Catholic life, so there are sites, videos, programs, or apps that do just about everything, from keeping us up on Catholic news and commentary to simply giving us a “place” to chat with our likeminded Catholic friends.
I’d like to close this article, however, by focusing more specifically upon the use of the new technologies in the crucial work of catechesis. More and more people are turning—or returning—to the Catholic Church, thanks to the amazing work of Catholics Come Home and other online organizations that warmly welcome and engage those who are not (yet) practicing Catholics.
But then what? Do we just ship them off to RCIA and move on with our virtual lives? Or do we continue to minister to these people during the catechetical phase of their formation process through the use of dynamic online tools? For that matter, what do the new technologies have to offer the millions of Catholics in this country who do not know the faith as well as they should, or who feel incompetent to teach the faith to others?
In my own work at My Catholic Faith Delivered, we adapt proven catechetical programs, classes, and resources to an interactive, online format. Through my participation in this new venture, I’ve already seen some exciting advantages to e-learning:
1) Anytime, Anywhere
One obvious characteristic of our “future-shocked” society is that we don’t seem to have enough time. (So much for all our modern, “time-saving” convenience.) This makes it a challenge to expect people to show up every Tuesday at the parish hall at 7 p.m. for a faith-enrichment class.
Sure, many of us need to make faith formation a higher priority in our lives. But even with that desire, scheduling conflicts are commonplace.
That’s a significant advantage of online learning, as individuals can take the course at whatever time works best and wherever they happen to have Internet access. This ease of use is huge when it comes to breaking through the inertia of taking on “one more thing.”
2) Faith at Your Fingertips
Online learning definitely appeals to the microwave generation. Only a decade ago I thought nothing of walking down the hall to find a reference book that might be helpful. Now, I’m so spoiled that if a page on the Internet takes more than a couple of seconds to load, I grow very impatient.
If the motivation is already there, people will go to libraries, or at least open their own copies of the Bible, Catechism, or other faith-related resource. Yet, online courses, with all the internal links, glossary hovers, and the like put a whole Catholic library instantly at one’s fingertips.
3) Piggyback on Other E-advantages
Online learning is able to take full advantage of present and future advances in communications technology. Here I’m not speaking primarily of the access the learner has to various types of media, such as videos and podcasts, though that is an obvious advantage in itself.
Rather, I particularly see the new opportunities in the area of social networking to be a major boon for teaching the faith. There are opportunities for chats, discussions, and messaging to instructors and others taking the same course. It’s in this sort of give-and-take that real learning takes place, and mere books or DVDs alone can’t provide this dynamic.
4) Multiple Learning Styles
I mentioned earlier about the need for e-culturation, to enter the digital world in order to claim it for Christ. Well, the mere fact of making religious education available in this format means we’re now speaking the language of our contemporaries, like St. Cyril and St. Methodius of old.
But there’s more to it than that. Online learning caters to a range of learning styles because of its use of text, video, audio, interactive/networking elements, and engaging exercises to reinforce the lesson. No one is left behind.
5) High Impact
Clearly online learning engages students’ senses in an unprecedented way. Let’s look at a couple of practical examples.
Sound religious education courses or programs will refer to the teachings of the popes. Online courses not only provide live links to the actual documents, but also give links to short YouTube videos of the pope actually imparting the teaching or creative presentations by “e-vangelists” who amplify the teaching for e-generation ears.
Another example might be the critically acclaimed Faith and Life series published by Ignatius Press. The book version is beloved by parents and religious educators not only because of its outstanding teaching, but also because of its extensive use of classical religious art. The online version of Faith and Life (available www.mycatholicfaithdelivered.com) allows the learner to zoom in and out of the artwork and to learn more about it, while at the same time listening to magnificent Gregorian chant. The idea in all this is not simply to deliver Catholic content, but create a welcoming, safe Catholic environment in which to study the faith.
Goal: Step Away
What should be the goal of online catechesis? As in any other form of catechesis, the goal is Christian maturity, to create saints. Paradoxically, the measure of the success of online faith formation tools will be the extent to which the learner is able to step away and experience the “rest, silence, and reflection” that are the basis of a balanced Christian life. Otherwise, we could be fishing—or should I say, surfing—the Internet all night, but to no avail (cf. Jn. 21:3-5).
In this rapidly changing world, let’s keep our eyes focused on Jesus Christ, who is, was, and ever will be the “perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2).
New Voices in the New Evangelization
Many voices inhabit the digital continent, or virtual “public square”—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
A Google search for “Catholic Church” returns approximately 23,000,000 in 0.39 seconds. Happily, both the Vatican’s Web site and the U.S. Bishops’ Web site appeared on the first page, but search engines don’t have orthodoxy filters, so many other voices are clamoring to be heard.
This should be a reminder that vigilance and selectivity should govern our Internet usage. Yet, these numbers shouldn’t deter us from finding our own voice in this huge medium, as we all have a part to play in the new “e-vangelization.”
Indeed, many have taken up this work. Blogger Matthew Warner’s “Catholics in New Media” column at http://www.ncregister.com/tags/catholics_in_new_media profiles the work of many innovative Catholic evangelists, including the pioneering work of Catholic Answers (www.catholic.com).
With Great Connectivity Comes Great Responsibility
“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 St. 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 more focused, efficient and compelling in their efforts. . . .
With the Gospels in our hands and in our hearts, we must reaffirm the need to continue preparing ways that lead to the Word of God, while being at the same time constantly attentive to those who continue to seek; indeed, we should encourage their seeking as a first step of evangelization. A pastoral presence in the world of digital communications, precisely because it brings us into contact with the followers of other religions, non-believers, 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. Just as the prophet Isaiah envisioned a house of prayer for all peoples (cf. Is 56:7), can we not see the Web as also offering a space—like the “Court of the Gentiles” of the Temple of Jerusalem—for those who have not yet come to know God?
—Pope Benedict XVI, World Communications Day Address 2010