The Message of Pope Benedict XVI for this year’s World Communications Day, albeit addressed to all the faithful, highlights the important role that priests can play in the evangelization of the digital world.
• It is a message that is best understood in continuity with the Pope’s Message for 2009 and that builds on the insights expressed therein concerning the potential of the new media to permit the almost instantaneous communication of words and images across enormous distances and to some of the most isolated corners of the world and thereby enhance the possibilities for the proclamation of the Good News of God’s love for all people, revealed in the person and teachings of Jesus.
• In the 2009, the Pope said: 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”. This year, the message is inviting priests to see how the digital technologies, and the new forms of communications they permit, can add a new dimension to their pastoral ministry. Who better than a priest, as a man of God, can develop and put into practice, by his competence in current digital technology, a pastoral outreach capable of making God concretely present in today`s world and presenting the religious wisdom of the past as a treasure which can inspire our efforts to live in the present with dignity while building a better future?
• The Message serves as an exhortation rather than as an instruction: the message, although it mentions the importance of images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites and takes for granted the need for adequate formation in the use of the new technologies, should not be read as a technical manual but rather as a profoundly theological reflection on the enormous potential of the technologies to enhance and enrich the ministry of priests. In this article, I would like to look more closely at the Message through the filter of a number of theological insights. The Message can be profitably read through the filter of an number of theological insights: these insights are implicit rather than explicit in the text of the Message but they serve to deepen our analysis and help us to elucidate some concrete indications for priests concerning their emerging engagement with the digital world.
First, we find in the message of the Pope this year a very clear theology of priesthood. He talks about the priest as the man of God. The word consecrated is used frequently: at the core of this consecration is precisely the priest’s relationship to the Word of God. 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. Again in the message we are told that priests should be witnesses to the Gospel. They should be in constant dialogue with the Gospel. They should come with the Gospel in hand and heart. The Pope is saying is that the priest’s communicative ministry must begin with his own profound listening to and meditation of the Gospel. Such meditation allows the Gospel to shape his being and ministry. Priests must strive to be people of the Gospel who as the message says will be more notable for our priestly hearts rather than for our technical savvy. The Pope also says that the priest should be an enthusiastic herald of the Gospel.
• This gives us some indication of the nature of the priest’s involvement in the web. The priest is on the web above all as somebody who will bring the Gospel. The web is a place for enthusiasts. On the web we find enthusiasts and people who are passionate about various projects, ideas, hobbies and aspects of human experience; who are sharing, discussing and learning about their interests. For priests, the web can be a forum where they express their enthusiasm for the Gospel, where they can share their understanding of the Gospel with others, where they can learn from other priests and other experts to grow in appreciation of the Gospel. We now have access to great, rich resources that can strengthen and develop our preaching.
• The web is to be understood not just as a place to pass time; we have reasons for being there. This requires that the priest will give a ministerial focus to presence in cyberspace. The priest should be present precisely as a priest. The Church is blessed in the fact that some priests are very competent at the level of technology and are good at finding appropriate forms of expression that allow them to communicate effectively in the digital environment. These are valuable talents, but on their own they are not sufficient. What is absolutely essential is that the priest be a man of the Gospel. He can find the technical know how. He can learn fluency. He can purchase these services. Better still, he can find them in his parish and community; but the priest must bring his own witness and the fruits of his personal engagement with the Gospel. That is what is indispensable.
• The second theological insight that echoes through this Message is its Christology. Christ is the saviour of all people. His words and his teachings offer hope to all. His love is without limits. The Pope uses a particularly felicitous expression when he says God is near, in Christ we all belong to one another. In the document, we see the consequences of that. For the Pope, the web is a place where we can bring Christ’s message to all people, where we can proclaim the new life which comes from hearing the Gospel of Jesus, the eternal Son who came among us for our salvation. There is a particular attentiveness in the Pope’s message to those who are far from the Church; those who are unsure and uncertain; those who perhaps doubt, but whose doubt is in fact a point of openness. And we need to be attentive to them because the message of Christ, which is the only message that offers fundamental hope to human beings, has been entrusted to us and we must bring it to others. The Gospel message is not just something for us or to keep for our own benefit; otherwise, we have failed Christ. There are many valid and worthwhile things priests may wish to say on-line but they must always give a priority to making known the person and the message of Jesus; this has implications not just for the content of the contributions of priests but for their tone.
• We also find in the message a very strong theology of culture. It is in and through culture that people express their deepest sense of who they are. We do this in the political structures we create. We do it in and through our art and literature, through our forms of community living. The Pope has long insisted on the need for believers to be present in the formation of culture – he calls this a “diaconate of culture”. We need to be present through rational discourse where we bring the insights of faith to bear though our reflection on human wellbeing. We need to ensure artistic expression is touched with the message of the Gospel: at a major gathering recently in the Vatican the Pope gathered artists and invited them to open the human spirit to the transcendent message of God’s love. When the Pope speaks about music, as he frequently does, he highlights the capacity of music to enrich and nourish the soul, to keep alive that yearning and searching that is distinctively human.
• In his latest encyclical the Pope has reflected on how we need forms of social solidarity, of living together, that ensure that we bring the deepest human values to our political and economic structures. For the Pope, the web opens up a possibility of there being a place, a forum, an agora where there can be debate and dialogue. Believers must be present there, bringing the insights of our faith into the debates that will happen. The Pope is very clear that new technologies on their own will not achieve this objective:Just because social communications increase the possibilities of interconnection and the dissemination of ideas, it does not follow that they promote freedom or internationalize development and democracy for all. To achieve goals of this kind, they need to focus on promoting the dignity of persons and peoples, they need to be clearly inspired by charity and placed at the service of truth, of the good, and of natural and supernatural fraternity. (Caritas in veritate, 73.)
• Pope Benedict develops the idea of the internet precisely as a place of encounter between believers and non-believers. He uses the image of the “Court of the Gentiles” to express this reality. Whereas access to the Temple of Jerusalem was reserved to Jewish males, the Court of the Gentiles was open to the Gentiles and it became a privileged place of meeting between Jewish believers, coming and going from the sacred area that was the Temple, and their non-Jewish neighbours. It was almost a half-way house between the sacred and the purely secular arena. The Pope suggests that the internet could exercise a similar function: 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?
• If priests take up the invitation of Pope Benedict and enter into dialogue with those, who in their browsing and searching of the internet, are ultimately in pursuit of truth, hope and meaning in life; and if they can further introduce them to the Good News of the Gospel, they will serve not only the Gospel but the good of humanity. If priests bring their deepest convictions with them as they go on-line, and encourage others to debate the ultimate questions; they, as Pope Benedict says, will not only enliven their pastoral outreach, but also will give a “soul” to the fabric of communications that makes up the “Web”.
• In countries where the Feast of the Ascension is celebrated and the Gospel of Luke (24: 46 – 53) is proclaimed, it would be most appropriate to highlight the universal nature of the Church’s call to proclaim the Gospel. Jesus said to his disciples:“Thus it is written that the Christ would sufferand rise from the dead on the third dayand that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins,would be preached in his nameto all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. The homilist might also seek to develop the understanding of the Ascension as an invitation to mission. The Risen Lord distances himself from his immediate disciples and from the land where he has exercised his earthly ministry in order to be present to all people throughout history and in every corner of our world. The internet could be presented as a way of bringing his word and message to “all the nations” of our world. Like the disciples, we must learn to bring our contemporaries to a greater sense of the Lord’s abiding presence – in the words of the first reading: “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven.”
• In countries where the Seventh Sunday of Easter is celebrated and the Gospel of John (17: 20 – 26) is proclaimed, it would be helpful to note that Jesus prays that his disciples will remain close to him so that they will brings his words to others. Lifting up his eyes to heaven, Jesus prayed saying: “Holy Father, I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” This would allow the homilist to highlight the need for all who are called to preach the Gospel to cultivate their sense of closeness to Jesus. If we are to proclaim the Good News with conviction; we must, like Stephen in the first reading, be “filled with the Holy Spirit”.