Giving a soul to the internet
My June Life Lines column, running in the current issue of Catholic New York:
When you sign onto Facebook to check out your friend’s latest vacation photos or post a status update, you probably don’t think of it as an evangelization opportunity, but social media is fast becoming one of the most effective ways for Catholics to share their beliefs in unintimidating and powerful ways.
By providing a virtual witness through things we say, the links we post, the community we build, we draw people toward us and, by extension, the faith that sustains us.
Although I’ve been preaching the spiritual benefits of social media for a while, it was exciting to hear Archbishop Claudio Celli, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications, say that it is “absolutely necessary that the Church should seek to establish a presence in the digital world.”
Archbishop Celli (in the photo above) made the comments May 22, when he was in Brooklyn to deliver the keynote address at World Communications Day and to receive the St. Francis de Sales Distinguished Communicator Award. Speaking to professionals in the communications field as well as representatives from parishes, schools and Catholic organizations, the archbishop said the Church’s mission is to “help every human being in the search for truth” and to help people, especially the young, discern which of the many messages circulating on social media and elsewhere might have meaning for their lives.
“We are always fishing in the aquarium. We forget the majority of fish are outside the aquarium,” he said, reminding all Catholics that social media offers us a unique opportunity to go beyond the walls of the “aquarium” and bring the Gospel to people who might not otherwise hear it.
Archbishop Celli stressed that we should not be “presumptors imposing our truth” on others via social media but rather friends encouraging dialogue and questions. “If we allow people to probe further, we help give a soul to the Internet,” he said, adding that “convergence” must be our hallmark—creating bonds, and speaking the truth with love.
I addressed this same topic from a different vantage point during a breakout session following the archbishop’s address. “Stealth Evangelization: How to Subtly Use Social Media to Spread the Good News” was my take on this important aspect of our universal mission. Would St. Paul have ignored 1.3 billion people on Facebook or 255 million people on Twitter? Not by a long shot. We need to see ourselves as modern-day St. Pauls, and social media as our Corinth.
As I told the men and women attending my session, avoiding social media as a Church is no longer an option. We have to meet people where they are. Social media is now part of the fabric of our everyday lives, especially the lives of young people. If it is not also part of the fabric of our faith lives, we stand to cut off many people from the beauty and power of Christ’s message.
So what would evangelization like that look like in your Facebook or Twitter world? Maybe just the occasional “share”of something Pope Francis said that day or a request for prayers for a special intention or a beautiful photo with a line from Scripture, not all the time, just now and then, and always with gentleness and warmth, openness and love.
“If the Church is not present (on social media)…we risk becoming marginal to the lives of many,” Archbishop Celli said, “and we fail in our mission to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth.”
Pope Francis recently tweeted this message to his 14 million Twitter followers: “What does ‘evangelize’ mean? To give witness with joy and simplicity to what we are and what we believe in.”
I think that’s at the heart of this subtle style of evangelization, whether we do it virtually or face to face. People are searching, but we have to be present to be found.