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February 5, 2014

Good Samaritans traveling 21st century digital highways: communication technologies and the church -
What is cybertheology? -
Lent, a season to combat destitution

In this edition:
1. Christians of this communications era.
2. Communicating, more than information.
3. Along digital roads: Just passing by?
4. Report on Communications Day message.
5. Communications: barricades or connections?
6. Current quotes to ponder:
a) What is cybertheology?
b) Getting the whole world to listen.
7. Lent: Christ's poverty and us.
8. Lent: Destitution's three forms.

1. Christians of Our Communications Era

What on earth does the Good Samaritan have to do with the world of digital communication and its universe of new technological devices, which allow people to remain in contact with each other wherever they are?

The Good Samaritan is a reference point in Pope Francis' message for the 2014 World Day of Communications, to be observed in most places June 1. His message sparked a widespread conversation about communicating effectively today. The Vatican released the message in mid-January.

Who is our neighbor? When that is the question, homilists, catechists and others often call the Good Samaritan to mind. Pope Francis enjoys thinking of communication in terms of neighborliness, he states in his Communications Day message. "Those who communicate, in effect, become neighbors," he says.

The Good Samaritan tended to the wounds of a beaten man found along the road and assumed responsibility for the injured man's care. Pope Francis writes, "Let our communication be a balm which relieves pain and a fine wine which gladdens hearts."

Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro commented on this theme of the papal message in his blog, "CyberTeologia." You may remember Father Spadaro, editor of the Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica, based in Rome. His interview with Pope Francis appeared last September in several leading Jesuit publications around the world and attracted worldwide attention.

Many of those whom Christians encounter today - including people who are wounded or injured - will be encountered along digital highways, Father Spadaro pointed out. If we ask why the church and her people need to be present in a digital environment, the answer is simple, Father Spadaro said. The church is called to be where people are, and people today live in a digital environment.

Father Spadaro commented that when Pope Francis speaks of communication, his focus is not on techniques of communication but on the people who communicate . For the pope, Father Spadaro adds, to communicate is to get involved with people, to be a witness of what you communicate, to take care of those around you and, in short, to be aware that human beings are children of God.

In a statement unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon, Pope Francis' message insists that "the digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people."

2. Communication, More Than Information

Effective communication does not consist solely of statements or bits of information transmitted to others. That is another key point Pope Francis makes in his 2014 World Day of Communications message, and it has important implications for educators of all kinds in the church.

"Effective Christian witness is not about bombarding people with religious messages, but about our willingness to be available to others" -- patiently engaging their questions and doubts, Pope Francis says. He writes, "We have to be able to dialogue with the men and women of today, to understand their expectations, doubts and hopes, and to bring them the Gospel."

Chiara Giaccardi, a professor at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy, commented on this point during the Jan. 23 Vatican press conference announcing the Communications Day message. Giaccardi is a scholar in the field of contemporary communications.

The pope's message approaches communication "in terms of solidarity" with others rather than in terms of the simple transmission of information, she indicated. This, she said, "has profound implications for education, formation, training and catechesis."

Another key point Pope Francis makes with his message is that while communication should draw people together, in a digital era it also is employed to barricade individuals and groups from each other. "The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbors, from those closest to us," he wrote.

He said, too, that in this new era "the speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgment, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression."

Giaccardi commented during the press conference that "communication is by definition a human, rather than a technological conquest. Technology may facilitate or hinder, but it does not determine."

Thus, she concluded, "the Internet does not make us more sociable, nor does it cause us to be more alone. We must not, therefore, use it as an alibi or as a scapegoat," but instead need to assume our own responsibility for communicating in a new environment.

3. On Digital Roads: Just Passing By?

"Authentic communication is not merely the transportation of bodiless messages," according to Brett Robinson, a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and an expert on the new communications technologies. Robinson's discussion of Pope Francis' World Communications Day message was published online and in print by L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.

It seems that one point of interest to Robinson was the pope's view that, for Christians, effective witness "is not about bombarding people with religious messages, but about our willingness to be available to others."

Robinson wrote: "A transmission view of communication, wherein media are merely modes of message transport, lacks the depth of engagement that authentic encounter requires." He drew the following image of people locked away from others:

"The image of people encased in vehicles of modern transportation, closed in on themselves as they rush from one thing to another, mirrors the modern communications environment. The sublime subtleties of nature are a mere blur from the climate-controlled confines of a car or plane. The suffering of individuals homeless, stranded or injured hardly penetrates the callous veneers of steel and glass that fly by in pursuit of maximum efficiency."

A "hollowing out of relationships" is worrisome for the pope, Robinson noted. It is a hollowing out "that occurs in a world of speed and efficiency."

But the pope indeed provides "a Christian vision for communication in the digital streets," Robinson said. According to this vision, he explained, "communication should not be viewed as a mere mode of transport. Rather, communication is a ritual encounter in which something real is exchanged and solidarity is strengthened. We lead by listening and entering into authentic dialogue."

However, to be "immersed in a digital environment of information and images while attempting to remain grounded in the real is a difficult task," Robinson acknowledged. He noted that Pope Francis "offers a solution in the form of another highway analogy, the road to Emmaus." Along that biblical road, two disciples encountered the risen Lord and engaged in conversation with him, but only recognized who he was later in the breaking of the bread.

Robinson commented that "the ways in which Christ can be manifested online through charitable communication are as manifold as the millions of online exchanges that take place every day."

The challenge, Robinson indicated, is to "bring the living bread" of the biblical Emmaus "to the highways, side roads and outposts of the digital frontier by privileging presence over just passing by."

4. Inside the Pope's Message

"A great and thrilling challenge" is found in "the revolution taking place in communications media and in information technologies" today, Pope Francis says in his message for the World Day of Communications, to be celebrated in most dioceses June 1.

A chance to become the true neighbor of others is offered to us by the contemporary communications media, the pope proposes. For him, the Good Samaritan of the Gospels is the model of this neighborliness, and the parable of the Good Samaritan "is also a parable about communication."

For, "the Good Samaritan not only draws nearer to the man he finds half dead on the side of the road; he takes responsibility for him." Pope Francis explains that he likes to view the "power of communication as 'neighborliness.'"

The communications revolution holds a challenge for the church, he suggests - a challenge "to show that the church is the home of all." Pope Francis asks, "Are we capable of communicating the image of such a church?"

The social networks of this new communications era are a means of experiencing the "call to discover the beauty of faith," he says. In the communications realm, "we need a church capable of bringing warmth and of stirring hearts."

However, Pope Francis adds, "effective Christian witness is not about bombarding people with religious messages, but about our willingness to be available to others," patiently engaging their questions and doubts. "We have to be able to dialogue with the men and women of today, to understand their expectations, doubts and hopes, and to bring them the Gospel," he says.

He explains that "to dialogue means to believe that the 'other' has something worthwhile to say and to entertain his or her point of view and perspective," but without "renouncing our own ideas and traditions." In this context, Pope Francis writes:

"If a choice has to be made between a bruised church which goes out to the streets and a church suffering from self-absorption, I certainly prefer the first. Those 'streets' are the world where people live and where they can be reached, both effectively and affectively.

"The digital highway is one of them, a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope. By means of the Internet, the Christian message can reach 'to the ends of the earth' (Acts 1:8).

"Keeping the doors of our churches open also means keeping them open in the digital environment so that people, whatever their situation in life, can enter and so that the Gospel can go out to reach everyone."

5. Communication: Barricade or Connection?

In the world today, "which is growing ever 'smaller'" due to the effects of rapid travel and communications, it "would seem to be easier for all of us to be neighbors," Pope Francis observes in his Communications Day message. Yet, he says, "our world suffers from many forms of exclusion, marginalization and poverty, to say nothing of conflicts born of a combination of economic, political, ideological and, sadly, even religious motives."

The rich potential of communications in a digital era does not mean, however, "that certain problems do not exist," the pope makes clear. He comments that while "the variety of opinions" getting expressed in a world of the Internet and social communications "can be seen as helpful," this also "enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests."

Thus, "the world of communications can help us either to expand our knowledge or to lose our bearings. The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbors, from those closest to us."

But while these are quite real "drawbacks" of the new communications technologies, they do not negate their potential.

The communications challenge at this time is one of realizing that "the walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another," according to the pope. To respond to this challenge, he indicates, it is important to be clear that "communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement."

He says, "If we are genuinely attentive in listening to others, we will learn to look at the world with different eyes and come to appreciate the richness of human experience as manifested in different cultures and traditions."

It will not be sufficient to be mere "passersby on the digital highways" who simply are "connected," Pope Francis says. Instead, "connections need to grow into true encounters" so that "the digital world can be an environment rich in humanity" and "a network not of wires but of people."

In order "to grow in humanity and mutual understanding" in the new "digital environment," Pope Francis thinks there is a need "to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm," and an "ability to be silent and to listen." He writes:

"We need also to be patient if we want to understand those who are different from us. People only express themselves fully when they are not merely tolerated, but know that they are truly accepted."

Pope Francis believes there are "immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity" in the good use of the Internet. That, he says, is "a gift from God."

6. Current Quotes to Ponder

CyberTheology: Transcendence in an iWorld: "CyberTheology, an elective in pastoral theology, offers students the opportunity to weave digital technology into their seminary education. More to the point, [this new] course takes a deeper look at the interface between theology and social communications. Its twofold emphasis is to seek the intelligibility of faith in light of our technological culture and to advance the mission of evangelization through social media. . . . Students at Overbrook will explore the place of that transcendent spirit in the iWorld. Through lectures and seminars they will examine the distinguishing features of the digital culture - its logic, its anthropology, its sociology. They will also analyze the church's teaching about social communications. . . . One goal of the course will be to connect the power of new media with the church's new evangelization. . . . As digital consumers, these seminarians are already purveyors of the power of social media. As future priests, they will soon be proclaimers of the wonders of salvation. Though distinct, these two realms are no longer separate. Digital technology has become the existential operating system for people the world over. The Gospel message offers them Good News as they continually search for hope. Integrating the two is now a critical task facing anyone who ministers in the church." (From a Jan. 21, 2014, entry on the "Seminarian Casual" blog at his seminary by Oblate Father Thomas Daily, who holds the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary outside Philadelphia.)

He Has the Whole World Listening: "Some have called the man from Argentina a 'tweetable' pope made for 140 characters! We delight in his words of wisdom telling us: 'Eternity will not be boring.' 'Long faces cannot proclaim Jesus.' 'War is madness. It is the suicide of humanity.' 'We are not part-time Christians.' And, 'The church is not spa therapy.' He's got the world talking and listening! . . . A French journalist has referred to Francis as a 'defibrillator' pope. We need defibrillators when we have serious heart problems. Defibrillation is a common treatment for life-threatening heart rhythms, blocked arteries and problems with pulses. Defibrillation consists of delivering a therapeutic dose of electrical energy to the affected heart. This depolarizes a critical mass of the heart muscle, terminates the arrhythmia and allows rhythm to be re-established by the body's natural pacemaker. Francesco is a badly needed ecclesial defibrillator for our times! Pope Francis' daily mantra can be summed up in one expression: 'Go out to the peripheries.' He calls us out of our cocoons. . . . Think outside the box. Go to uncharted places on the fringes. You will be surprised who you find there! . . . Pope Francis reminds us each day of the words of his predecessor Blessed John over 50 years ago at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council: 'The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way it is presented is another.' With Pope Francis, it's the same story we have heard for ages, but my God how the packaging has indeed changed! No wonder the world has noticed, listened." (From a Jan. 16 speech by Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, who heads the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation based in Toronto, Ontario. He spoke in Vancouver, British Columbia.)

7. Lent: Christ's Poverty and Us

Two basic points in the first Lenten message of Pope Francis might seem at first glance to stand in opposition to each other. First, he urges Christians to combat and alleviate the destitution in the world around them. Second, he urges them to consider the positive dimensions of poverty - the poverty characteristic of Jesus' own life.

Released at the Vatican Feb. 4, the Lenten message bears this title: "He became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor. 8:9). The title uniquely sums up what the pope intends to say here.

The Lenten message contrasts destitution and poverty. "Destitution is not the same as poverty: Destitution is poverty without faith, without support, without hope," the message explains.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Vatican body that handles the pope's charitable giving, discussed this point during the Vatican press conference at which the Lenten message was released.

The message "makes an important distinction between poverty and destitution. It is not poverty, which is an evangelical attitude, but rather destitution that we wish to combat," the cardinal said. He added that "the first point of reference for a Christian to understand poverty is indeed Christ, who made himself poor so that he could enrich us through his poverty."

Christ's "choice of poverty" suggests "that there exists a positive dimension of poverty. This resonates throughout the Gospel, which proclaims that the poor are blessed," Cardinal Sarah said.

The message itself explains that "when Jesus asks us to take up his 'yoke which is easy,' he asks us to be enriched by his 'poverty which is rich' and his 'richness which is poor." And "in every time and place God continues to save mankind and the world through the poverty of Christ, who makes himself poor in the sacraments, in his word and in his church, which is a people of the poor."

The wealth of God, the message adds, "passes not through our wealth, but invariably and exclusively through our personal and communal poverty, enlivened by the Spirit of Christ. In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own and to take practical steps to alleviate it."

Pope Francis thinks that to resemble Christ is this way requires sacrifice. He says:

"Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty.

"Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: No self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt."

8. Lent: Destitution's Three Forms

"There are three types of destitution: material, moral and spiritual," Pope Francis notes in his 2014 Lenten message. He exhorts Christians to combat destitution by becoming like Christ, whose poverty enriched others.

The pope's discussion of destitution is central to his message. I would like, therefore, to highlight that section here with fairly lengthy excerpts from the message.

Material Destitution:

This "is what is normally called poverty and affects those living in conditions opposed to human dignity: those who lack basic rights and needs such as food, water, hygiene, work and the opportunity to develop and grow culturally."

In response to material destitution, "the church offers her help, her 'diakonia,' in meeting these needs and binding these wounds which disfigure the face of humanity. In the poor and outcast we see Christ's face; by loving and helping the poor, we love and serve Christ."

The church's efforts, the pope continues, also are "directed to ending violations of human dignity, discrimination and abuse in the world, for these are so often the cause of destitution. When power, luxury and money become idols, they take priority over the need for a fair distribution of wealth. Our consciences thus need to be converted to justice, equality, simplicity and sharing."

Moral Destitution:

This form of destitution "consists in slavery to vice and sin," the pope continues. He writes:

"How much pain is caused in families because one of their members -- often a young person -- is in thrall to alcohol, drugs, gambling or pornography! How many people no longer see meaning in life or prospects for the future, how many have lost hope!

"And how many are plunged into this destitution by unjust social conditions, by unemployment, which takes away their dignity as breadwinners, and by lack of equal access to education and health care. In such cases moral destitution can be considered impending suicide."

This type of destitution, the pope observes, can also cause financial ruin and invariably is linked to spiritual destitution.

Spiritual Destitution:

This form of destitution is experienced "when we turn away from God and reject his love," the pope states. He says: "If we think we don't need God who reaches out to us though Christ, because we believe we can make do on our own, we are headed for a fall."

The "real antidote to spiritual destitution" is the Gospel. Thus, "wherever we go, we are called as Christians to proclaim the liberating news that forgiveness for sins committed is possible, that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life," the pope writes.

"It is thrilling," he concludes, "to experience the joy of spreading this good news, sharing the treasure entrusted to us, consoling broken hearts and offering hope to our brothers and sisters experiencing darkness."