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December 16, 2009

A lesson of Advent - Opening up places in Catholic schools for Latino children - Evaluating online social networking in ministry -
Bits of prayer advice

In this edition:

1. The church and Facebook: Social networking in ministry.
2. Online social networking and the digital divide.
3. To Twitter or not to Twitter in ministry.
4. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Doubling the number of Latino children in Catholic schools.
b) Young Latinos on the cusp of adulthood in the U.S. today.
5. A lesson of Advent.
6. Aligning pastoral ministry with the person, not personage, of Jesus.
7. Bits of prayer advice.
8. The Bible and the God who is complex, though uncomplicated.

1. The Church and Facebook: Online Social Networking

Online social networking has become an accepted means of communication for a great many individuals and groups. Australia's bishops recognize this in the "social-networking protocol" they approved in early December for church groups, employees, volunteers and others.

While it discusses several forms of online communication, including Twitter and blogging, many will find what the protocol says about Internet sites such as MySpace or Facebook of particular interest. The protocol was developed by the bishops' Commission for Mission and Faith Formation upon the advice of the Australian Catholic Media Council.

In one key point, the Australian bishops ask whether and how it is appropriate for church groups and/or employees to "friend" with some of those they serve in the church's name. But more on that later.

Perhaps someone in your own community is raising questions about privacy issues related to online social networking or about how to employ social networking appropriately. Indeed, this is an area in which you may have a few insights of your own, based on experience.

As one may discern from what follows, the Australian bishops, while endorsing the potential of social networking, appear to harbor some concerns - and fears? -- regarding possibly inappropriate uses of this form of communication.

The protocol calls attention both to strengths and risks that may accompany the use on the church's behalf of social networking, and it proposes several guidelines for those who go online as part of their ministry.

"The online building of social networks for communities of people who share interests and activities has fundamentally changed the way in which people, especially young people, communicate and share information," the protocol observes. "The church wishes to take advantage of social-networking opportunities as one means of communicating the love of Jesus Christ to people," it says.

However, social networking "should not be seen as a substitute for actual community life," the protocol states. Instead, its use should "underpin and enhance the life of actual communities."

Furthermore, the protocol tells church groups and representatives they "need to be aware of appropriate boundaries and activities" when they communicate "in the name of the church in an online environment."

A clear distinction "between personal and professional communication" should be maintained in social networking, according to the protocol. It comes out against the use of social-networking sites as vehicles for types of "personal communication that would fall outside of normal professional or pastoral relationships."

Discussing boundaries in social networking, the protocol says:

"The overriding principle for clergy, members of religious communities, church employees, volunteers or members of church organizations or groups is that their behavior online should reflect the standard of appropriate behavior which is expected in all person-to-person interaction. Such behavior should at all times demonstrate a Christ-centered respect for the dignity of each person. Appropriate boundaries should always be observed, especially in communication with young people."

Social networking ought to be seen "as a tool for evangelization, inviting people into a deeper personal relationship" with Christ and God's people through:

-- "The promotion of church activities."

-- "The sharing of appropriate catechetical materials, whether in text, video or sound."

-- "The creation of faith-based dialogue on appropriately moderated blogs or forums."

The practice of what is known as "friending," as occurs on Facebook, is given somewhat careful attention by the protocol. In fact, it says individuals working on behalf of the church who wish, as part of their social-networking activities, "to set up a personal [online] profile which might involve 'friending' those to whom they minister, should first seek the permission of the bishop."

The protocol's discussion of the use of photographs or videos in social networking seems worth noting. This is an area that deserves "particular care" on the part of those working for the church, the protocol states. It says:

"Global permission should be sought from all individuals in photos or in videos before they are posted. Material which might embarrass or offend those pictured should at all times be avoided. Material should be removed at once if it is the subject of a complaint or if the posting of a particular item makes an individual uncomfortable."

The protocol takes the position that a church entity that wants "to engage in official church social-networking activities should only" set itself up as a group. Thus, the protocol explains, a group might set itself up online as the Diocese of Broken Bay Youth Ministry, but not as Joe Smith, Youth Minister for Broken Bay. This, the protocol says, addresses "possible ambiguities surrounding the issue of whether it is appropriate for church employees to 'friend' with the people to whom they minister."

What about private uses of social-networking sites by those who represent the church? This "should be kept distinct from their professional use of such sites," the protocol states.

Also noteworthy is what the protocol says about accepting "'friend requests" from others - a question, it seems to this writer, that professionals in a number of fields, such as teachers, are beginning to reflect upon and take seriously. (A question for teachers, for example, is whether to accept friend requests from students.)

"It is advisable that people exercise great care and judgment in accepting 'friend' requests from people to whom they minister, especially young people," the protocol states. It adds, "In this way appropriate boundaries can be maintained."

2. Online Social Networking and the Digital Divide

How much time do the poor spend online? The reality of a digital divide between the world's haves and have-nots is well recognized. But what the Australian bishops said about this in the social-networking protocol they released this December seems notable.

"Great care must be taken by all church entities, particularly those engaged in youth ministry, not to rely exclusively on social networking as a means of communication," the protocol insists. For, "to do this could be to exclude the poor - those who cannot afford a computer, who live in remote localities with poor Internet connectivity, who struggle with illiteracy or who face other challenges that place them outside of the online world."

And here is perhaps the most notable quote in this discussion: "Going to church and hearing others talk about their social-networking experiences can be profoundly isolating for those unable to take part."

The protocol offers this advice to all who undertake the work of the church: "Social networking should only ever be one of a range of communication methods that we use to invite people into closer relationship with Jesus Christ."

3. To Twitter or Not to Twitter

Since the number of the world's Twitterers is growing apace, I want before taking leave of the Australian bishops' protocol on social networking to call attention to its comments on this relatively new communications vehicle.

"The use of social-networking tools such as Twitter by church entities is appropriate for the purpose of awareness-raising and evangelization," according to the protocol. This, it continues, is particularly true "if such use links people back to church Web sites or activities, etc."

However, the bishops hold in their protocol that "it is generally not appropriate for individuals acting on behalf of the church to post their personal thoughts and activities on Twitter." If someone representing the church believes that "such activity is, in some cases, considered to be pastorally appropriate, it should first be discussed with the bishop or other religious authority," it adds.

4. Current Quotes to Ponder: Serving Hispanic Children and Youths Better

Doubling the Number of Latino Students in U.S. Catholic Schools: "Nationwide, classrooms are seeing a rapidly growing number of Latino students, but American schools are not serving these children well. In urban America, Catholic schools often provide the highest quality education available to Latino children and families. . There are nearly 700,000 empty seats in American Catholic schools. The goal of [the Notre Dame Task Force], which reflects complementary desires to close the Latino achievement gap and to revitalize American Catholic schools, is to double the percentage of Latinos attending Catholic schools. Given population growth estimates, this goal means increasing the national enrollment of Latino children in Catholic schools from 290,000 to over 1 million. Schools need to inform and attract Latinos and lower financial barriers. All stakeholders need to work together to expand current capacity, reopen closed schools and build new facilities. . Universities, schools and dioceses should prepare principals to transform school culture to better serve Latino children, recruit highly qualified Latinos into leadership positions and invite Latino community leaders to join boards. Stakeholders need to work together to create culturally responsive Catholic schools." (From the executive summary of "To Nurture the Soul of a Nation," a report released Dec. 12 by the University of Notre Dame Task Force on the Participation of Latino Children and Families in Catholic Schools)

Young Hispanics on the Cusp of Adulthood in the U.S. Today: "Hispanics are the largest and youngest minority group in the United States. One in five schoolchildren is Hispanic. One in four newborns is Hispanic. Never before in this country's history has a minority ethnic group made up so large a share of the youngest Americans. By force of numbers alone, the kinds of adults these young Latinos become will help shape the kind of society America becomes in the 21st century. This report takes an in-depth look at Hispanics who are ages 16 to 25, a phase of life when young people make choices that - for better and worse - set their path to adulthood. The data paint a mixed picture. Young Latinos are satisfied with their lives, optimistic about their futures and place a high value on education, hard work and career success. Yet they are much more likely than other American youths to drop out of school and to become teenage parents. They are more likely than white and Asian youths to live in poverty. And they have high levels of exposure to gangs. These are attitudes and behaviors that, through history, have often been associated with the immigrant experience. But most Latino youths are not immigrants. Two-thirds of Hispanics ages 16 to 25 are native-born Americans. The four-decade-old Hispanic immigration wave is now mature enough to have spawned a big second generation of U.S.-born children who are on the cusp of adulthood." (From "Between Two Worlds: How Young Latinos Come of Age in America," a study published Dec. 11 by the Pew Hispanic Center)

5. The Lesson of Advent

Learning to recognize God's presence in the events of a day is a worthy Advent goal, Pope Benedict XVI suggested in a homily Nov. 28 for the start of Advent 2009. In fact, he proposed keeping what he termed an "interior journal" of the glimpses given of God's love in the ordinary course of life.

Advent "is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us, signs of the attention he has for each one of us," Pope Benedict said. He called Advent a "powerful liturgical season" that invites Christians "to pause in silence to understand a presence."

Of course, Advent also brings Christian expectation and hope into focus, Pope Benedict made clear. He recommended that Advent be looked upon as a time to "experience intensely the present in which we already receive the gifts of the Lord" and to live with a focus "on the future, a future charged with hope."

God's closeness is a theme of Pope Benedict's papacy. This theme popped up again in this Advent homily. As a season for reflecting on God's presence, Advent is a reminder that "in every situation" God "can come to us and become close to us."

In its basic meaning, Advent indicates that God "has not withdrawn from the world. Even if we cannot see and touch him as we can tangible realities, he is here and comes to visit us in many ways," Pope Benedict said. He added that the realization of this helps people to view the world differently - "with different eyes."

6. Aligning Pastoral Ministry With the Person, Not Personage, of Jesus

True, it can be seen in the Gospels that Jesus could be severe with others. What ought to be noted, however, are which people he was severe toward, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa said in a Dec. 4 Advent address to Pope Benedict XVI and top Vatican officials. Father Cantalamessa is the official preacher of the papal household.

It cannot be said of Jesus that he was "strong with the weak and weak with the strong," as at times is said of some political figures, Father Cantalamessa stated. He insisted that Jesus was not severe with "the simple people who followed him and came to listen to him." Instead, Jesus was severe with "hypocrites, the self-sufficient, the teachers and guides of the people."

In light of the church's current Year for Priests, Father Cantalamessa devoted his remarks to the pastoral ministry of priests. He said that continuing Christ's work in the world means making one's own the basic attitudes of the Lord in his encounters with people, "not to judge, but to save."

It is good when priests, like Christ, are likeable and develop a sense of solidarity with others, as well as compassion for them, Father Cantalamessa suggested, citing the Letter to the Hebrews (4:15-5:3).

The task of Christ's ministers "is to represent him," making him present and giving "visible form to his invisible presence," said Father Cantalamessa. He called this the priesthood's "prophetic dimension." Prior to the time of Christ, he explained, prophecy essentially meant announcing a future salvation, but after Christ prophecy means "revealing his hidden presence." To do this, priests need a strong relationship with Jesus, he stressed.

He cautioned against turning Christ into a personage. A personage is someone to speak about, like Napoleon or Julius Caesar, not someone to converse with. If Jesus remains just a collection of opinions, dogmas or heresies, "someone who is placed instinctively in the past, a memory, not a presence," then he has become a personage, said Father Cantalamessa.

So it is important that pastoral ministers "speak with" Jesus, Father Cantalamessa continued. He said it is essential to see "that he is alive and present" and to know that it is more important to speak with him than about him. The first step in making Jesus "the soul of one's priesthood" is to move from the personage of Jesus to Jesus the person, he said.

In fact, it is "love for Jesus" that marks the difference between a priest who is known as a manager and one who is known as a "dispenser of the mysteries of God," Father Cantalamessa proffered. He said that the pastoral action of every church minister "is but the concrete expression of love for Christ."

7. Bits of Prayer Advice

"The one thing in life in which I am bound to succeed is prayer," Jesuit Father John Edwards said in a speech in London. Do you agree?

Father Edwards' judgment that people are "bound to succeed" in prayer flows from his acceptance of the commonly agreed upon principle that the mere "intention to pray is prayer." As Father Edwards put it, "Providing I do not withdraw my intention, I am praying."

The priest, author of "Ways of Praying" and several other books, is a frequent retreat director. He spoke Nov. 11 in the "Faith Matters" series sponsored by the Archdiocese of Westminster, England.

If he is confident that people can succeed at prayer, Father Edwards nonetheless acknowledges and welcomes the statement in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that "prayer is a battle" (No. 2725). In fact, he said he finds it "encouraging to be told officially that prayer can be 'a battle.'"

Father Edwards offered a bit of advice. "Suppose we think of prayer as an intelligent response to the presence of God," he proposed. Because God is present in many different ways (as creator; in his word; in oneself and others; and especially in the Eucharist), the priest said a number of different responses would be appropriate.

Different styles of prayer result from the different ways of responding to the different presences of God, said Father Edwards. Each of these responses can be thought of as a style of prayer, "and in each style one could find a number of different 'methods.'" (For example, consider God's presence "in his word." Here "the style of response has innumerable methods: 'lectio divina,' meditation or contemplation on a scene of our Lord's life, the rosary.")

In a further bit of advice, which Father Edwards called "a basic lesson in prayer," he recommended simply paying "attention to the words we hear in the Preface of every Mass: 'It is right always and everywhere to give you thanks.' Always, everywhere." But what, the priest asked, does always and everywhere encompass? For example, should a person give thanks when something bad happens, even for the Crucifixion?

Answering in the affirmative, Father Edwards said that this basic lesson about prayer represents "a massive program of trust" in God. Actually, he added, it comes down to "living in the knowledge that God is not in fact incompetent or malicious," and that God "does love us."

8. The Bible and the God Who Is Complex, But Uncomplicated

"The point of a systematic reading of Scripture as our liturgy does it today is that in the course of three years of Sundays you read just about all the New Testament and a great deal of the Old Testament," Father John Hemer, a Mill Hill Missionary who is a British seminary professor, said in a Nov. 18 address in London on the Bible. He was a speaker in the Archdiocese of Westminster's late-fall lecture series titled "Faith Matters."

One section of Father Hemer's address discussed the complex, but uncomplicated God met in the Bible. "We all have our favorite passages, which we love to hear, and there are things that baffle us, maybe things that shock and disgust us," he observed. The fact is, Father Hemer said, that "all this is our God. There is much more to him than any of us could ever imagine."

Father Hemer believes that "if the Bible presents us with far more images and ideas about God than we can cope with or assimilate, then it's doing its job." In that case, the Bible is "reminding us that God is the creator of all that is, infinitely greater and wiser than us."

However, anyone looking for a book that will sum God up "in a few nice phrases" is "looking for an idol," Father Hemer commented. For, "if the Bible is a window into the mind of God it must be complex in the extreme -- complex but not complicated."

Explaining what is complex and what is uncomplicated, Father Hemer said:

a) "There is much, much more to God than any of us can ever imagine -- that's the complex bit."

b) "Nevertheless, access to [God] is remarkably simple -- that's the uncomplicated bit."