Religious life and the digital sphere

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“Studying new ways and means to communicate the Gospel of mercy to all people, in the heart of different cultures, through the media that the new digital cultural context makes available to our contemporaries is something that is “very much in my heart.”  (Pope Francis).

Pope Francis has called the internet, text messages and social networks ‘a gift from God’ and the Conference of Religious, in line with its strategic objective to have a more visible presence and a stronger voice, has launched social media accounts and redesigned its website.   Through Twitter and also Instagram (- a photograph and video sharing social network), the mission of religious communities in England and Wales will be highlighted and promoted.  This redesigned homepage aims to be a showcase of the work of religious and allow individual religious to share their thoughts in the newly created ‘blog’ section.

The power of these new methods of communication can be seen in Pope Francis’ engagement with the digital sphere. On Instagram, he has 5.7 million followers. His @Pontifex Twitter accounts have reached more than 40 million followers in nine different languages. The Vatican Secretariat for Communication has described the accounts as an essential way for Pope Francis to personally connect with people around the world: “Every day, through his tweets, Pope Francis makes himself available to men and women through social media, at times offering a spiritual thought,” the Secretariat has said, “other times sharing with his followers a reflection on events of great significance for the international community.”    For instance, at the launch of his environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis sent out nearly two dozen tweets over six days, calling for immediate action on climate change – with the notably pithy  tweet, warning that the earth was beginning to "look more and more like an immense pile of filth." 

In a message for the World Day of Communications Pope Francis said : “The internet can be used wisely to build a society which is healthy and open to sharing. Communication, wherever and however it takes place, has opened up broader horizons for many people. This is a gift of God which involves a great responsibility. I like to refer to this power of communication as “closeness”. The encounter between communication and mercy will be fruitful to the degree that it generates a closeness which cares, comforts, heals, accompanies and celebrates. In a broken, fragmented and polarised world, to communicate with mercy means to help create a healthy, free and fraternal closeness between the children of God and all our brothers and sisters in the one human family.”

A Redemptorist, Fr Biju Madathikunnel, CSsR, recently offered a reflection on the significance of digital communication for religious: “As we know the culture of our time is digital and religious life must deal with this reality, to take advantage of the good it bears and to learn how to manage the risks and challenges that it poses……There is no doubt that the great changes that we witness today are reshaping our religious life. We are being changed sometimes even without our conscious knowledge. The way we live our religious life, the way we express our faith, the way we engage in ministry, the way we interact with each other etc., are all changed in a couple of decades.”

Referring to the generational gap within the use of technology, he says this can impact on religious life, for example, between formators and students: “Very often young people are smarter than their parents and mentors, because of their skill to adapt to new technology.”

Noting that Pope Francis has said the internet can be used to reach the “peripheries of human existence, ”  Fr Biju says religious should think seriously about this reality of digital culture and how it can enhance mission: “It is the responsibility of the Church to reflect together how we can use the media to reach out to the most abandoned and poor. We the Redemptorists have a specific mission to reach out to the peripheries of the world. However, more than ever we need to think about it in a different way in the context of the technological developments and new means of communication.”

At a recent gathering of Redemptorists in Rome,  a talk on ‘the Church in Digital Culture’ was given by Bishop Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture.  Bishop Tighe was involved in the launch of the @pontifex twitter handle that was created for Pope Benedict and subsequently used so successfully by Pope Francis; he argues strongly that it is important for people in the Church to recognise how the digital environment functions and to see it as a new continent for evangelisation: “The Church, Institutes of the Church and individual believers have complete entitlement to be part of the digital environment. If we’re there, we should be there in the first place as good citizens, as people who see the potential in social media to actually build up the sense of the unity of the human family; who see the potential in social media to create good conversations across distances and across times and across cultures. We need to be first and foremost people who are able to be there credibly and with a certain respect for other people and only then will there be a credibility about our presence as believers.”

Arguing that those of faith need to have a “thoughtful presence” on the internet, he said there were challenges and opportunities for religious congregations: “One of the things some religious orders are looking at, in terms of their own particular charism -  for instance if they have a charism towards education, is : how do we educate online? How do we actually, faithfully continue what were our priorities in education, or in healthcare or in social services, through an online presence. How do we support people, how do we advise, how do we care in a ‘different’ environment?”

Addressing the challenge for formation, Bishop Tighe reflected on his previous experience of teaching in seminary, when new candidates were “walled in” and separated off from society and how that is now gone: “People who are coming in to formation nowadays are thoroughly digitalised….people will continue to be connected to previous lives, previous work, previous ideas. We shouldn’t fight that, we should embrace that. We need to talk to people about their use of and engagement with social media, to understand how they’re developing at the human level.”

He added that spiritual formation can also flourish with the aid of the internet: “To be spiritual does not necessarily mean to have to come offline. There are resources that build peoples’ spirituality through an online presence.”

Conference of Religious on Twitter:  @OfReligious

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