On World Communications Day: Is the Internet a Gift from God?

Sunday June 1, 2014 is the 48th World Communications Day in the Universal Church.  Pope Francis’ message on this year’s theme, “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter,” can be found in full here

Pope_Francis_Holy Internet Batman! Gift from God? I thought they said Al Gore invented the Internet!
Pope Francis released a 2014 World Communications Day message saying that the Internet is “something truly good, a gift from God.”  Are we looking at a media-savvy Pope? Or is this a variation of a “can’t beat ‘em so join ‘em” kind of resignation? Maybe even a new marketing angle for the Catholic Church to attract the young and tech-savvy?

I dug deeper. World Communications Day was the only official day of celebration proclaimed during a world-wide gathering of bishops and cardinals in Rome in 1963. The first World Communications Day message was released on January 24, 1967. January 24 was picked because it is the day the Catholic Church celebrates another festival: that of Saint Francis de Sales, who is acknowledged by Catholics as the patron of writers and journalists, and so a patron of the communications media. (And here we thought January 24 was significant because it was the day Apple Computers launched their first Macintosh personal computer. But that was January 24, 1984, many centuries later.)

Then there’s the question of origin regarding the “gift from God” phrase. Digging deeper still, you can find this phrase repeated multiple times throughout the Catholic Church’s more than 78 years’ worth of media documents and communiques, all conveniently Google-able online and searchable at www.vatican.va. You’ll find this phrase about media as “gifts from God” implicitly and explicitly expressed in all the Catholic Church’s official documents about the media, from the first document released in 1936 to today. We have to pause for a moment to consider the scene in 1936, since I bet many of you reading this aren’t old enough to remember what it was like back then. In 1936, most folks didn’t know what a television set was, let alone own one. 1936 was before Orson Welles’ broadcast of his landmark, media-shaking War of the Worlds drama that scared folks silly. And it was during a time in our history when the media was viewed suspiciously as a tool for propaganda. Despite all this, the Catholic Church held out that media is a “gift from God”.

There’s an elegant simplicity to the Pope’s 2014 message too: as much as the media connects so many of us, the media can’t magically unite us in solidarity. That’s a human task, not a technological one. Pope Francis writes: “Often we need only walk the streets of a city to see the contrast between people living on the street and the brilliant lights of the store windows.  We have become so accustomed to these things that they no longer unsettle us.” Maybe it’s the visual contrast he uses or maybe it’s simply his own personal, lived experience expressed in so many words, but something about this statement is disturbingly familiar..

If we can choose to ignore the people around us, how much easier it becomes to ignore the human person behind the login name or behind the online avatar. Or the irony of how all this connectivity with people far off can cut us off from people close by.

“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.” Even this sentiment hits too close to home. It’s too easy to let the time slip by when we’re online. Whether at work or at play, we know we ought “to recover a certain sense of deliberateness and calm.  This calls for time and the ability to be silent and to listen.” Listen to others, and listen to ourselves, sometimes to just be, for our own sanity if nothing else.

Again, the same positive message about media from the Catholic Church: “The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people…. As I have frequently observed, 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.” It’s not about “bombarding people with religious messages” he says, but about “patiently and respectfully” being a true friend to both that person we meet online and to Jesus Christ.

Dr. Eugene Gan is faculty associate of the Veritas Center, Professor of Interactive Media, Communications, and Fine Art at Franciscan University of Steubenville in the United States, and author of Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media (available in paperback and e-book).

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