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by Jonathan F. Sullivan
Director of Catechetical Services
Diocese of Springfield, Illinois
Over the past fifty years, the world has seen a revolution in communications technologies that is radically reshaping the ways in which organizations and individuals share information, news, knowledge, and viewpoints. In this Year of Faith, as we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the twentieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, new media outlets offer the Church another avenue with which to "profess the faith in fullness and with renewed conviction, with confidence and hope" (Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei [PF], no. 9, www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/motu_proprio/documents/hf_ben-xvi_motu-proprio_20111011_porta-fidei_en.html). However, without a proper understanding of these tools, we risk misusing them and presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ in confusing or uncertain ways.
The Church and Media
The Church has long used the methods available to her to communicate the Gospel to the world. In centuries past, this meant papyrus, vellum, and paper. More recently, broadcast technologies have added radio and television to the ways in which the kerygma has been proclaimed around the world.
That the faithful now use blogs and Facebook, podcasts and YouTube to spread the Gospel should not surprise us. In fact, in the second document approved at the Second Vatican Council, the Council Fathers taught, "All the members of the Church should make a concerted effort to ensure that the means of communication are put at the service of the multiple forms of the apostolate without delay and as energetically as possible" (Second Vatican Council, Decree on the Means of Social Communication [Inter Mirifica], no. 13, in Vatican Council II: Volume 1: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery [Northport, NY: Costello Publishing, 1996]).
Forty-nine years later, Pope Benedict XVI echoed this sentiment when, speaking specifically of new digital communications tools, he wrote, "As with every other fruit of human ingenuity, the new communications technologies must be placed at the service of the integral good of the individual and of the whole of humanity. If used wisely, they can contribute to the satisfaction of the desire for meaning, truth and unity which remain the most profound aspirations of each human being" (Benedict XVI, Message for the 45th World Communications Day, www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/communications/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20110124_45th-world-communications-day_en.html). Just as in decades past the Church has embraced new communications tools, so today the Church must embrace new media tools as another means to "go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature" (Mk 16:15).
The New Mass Media
The Internet and the World Wide Web have allowed for the creation of entirely new methods of communication among people. Just a few years ago, words such as "blog" and "podcast" didn't exist; now they are a regular source of news and information for millions of people across the world. Similarly, social networking sites are helping us stay more connected with family, friends, and colleagues the world over.
It would be wrong to say that these new technologies are "value neutral." No tool is ever completely neutral, and these new technologies are no different (consider the old adage that to the person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail). They contain underlying assumptions and means of use that shape behavior and expectations. For instance, social sites encourage users to share information about themselves: their interests, events in their lives, and even the proverbial "what I'm having for lunch." While this openness and sharing can help people feel more connected to one another and help establish relationships among people, they can also encourage individuals to share inappropriate or private information.
Another hallmark of these new technologies is their egalitarian nature. In the past, the means of mass communication were limited to those with the resources to purchase and operate printing presses or broadcast towers for radio and television. With the move to the medium of digital bytes, however, the cost of mass communication has greatly decreased, opening their use to many more people. The costs to start a new blog are almost negligible when compared to the costs to start a newspaper or television station. The proliferation of Catholic blogs, podcasts, and videocasts by individuals with a passion for sharing their faith is a testament to the Internet's power as a personal publishing platform.
Finally, because they are composed of electronic bytes and not physical material, the elements of new media tend to be easily copied, edited, and distributed beyond the original audience. When a blog post or video becomes widely shared, it is said to have "gone viral." Someone else may even edit it to create something new, enhancing (or parodying) the original. This ease of sharing is one of the most valuable aspects of new media, and users of the Church's media efforts should be encouraged to share what they see or read with others in their social media circles.
Spreading Catholic Principles in the Year of Faith
In his apostolic letter announcing the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, "It is the love of Christ that fills our hearts and impels us to evangelize. Today as in the past, he sends us through the highways of the world to proclaim his Gospel to all the peoples of the earth" (PF, no. 7). These "highways of the world" include the Internet, the "digital continent" that calls out to be evangelized with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
If you are new to the world of online media, start by taking a survey of the great Catholic work being done on the Internet. Sites such as NewEvangelizers.com, CatholicMom.com, Fr. Robert Barron's WordOnFire.org, AustinCNM.com, and ANunsLife.org are paving the way and demonstrating how to use new digital technologies for spreading the Church's message. Sharing the good work being done by these new media apostolates—through your personal social media accounts or through your parish, Catholic school, or other ministry's online presence—will not only support and encourage these new media pioneers but also expose your friends, family, and fellow Catholics to good content concerning the faith. You may also be inspired to create your own new media resources to share.
Online video is one of the most effective new media tools available to the Church and one of the most underutilized. Besides being "platform neutral" (that is, they can be shared across various websites and services), videos allow for a great use of storytelling and personal narrative. For example, using inexpensive video cameras, it is possible to interview older Catholics about their experiences before, during, and after the Council. Asking interviewees questions—for example, "How has your experience of faith changed since the Council?" or "What has the Church learned from the documents of the Council?"—could prompt interesting stories, recollections, and insights that can then be shared via YouTube and other online video sites.
There's no need for a fancy set or high production values. In fact, a "low-tech" style helps online videos feel more authentic. Videos created specifically for new media platforms should be short (five to ten minutes long). Longer videos, such as presentations or lectures, can also be shared but may not be as effective. Try to find a five- to ten-minute highlight within a larger presentation and share it as a "teaser" for the longer version.
Images and photos are another effective means of spreading ideas across various new media services. Services such as Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook are putting a renewed focus on how images are displayed, because they are such an immediate and compelling form of content.
Fortunately, using pictures in new media does not mean hiring a professional photographer. With the advent of cheap and ubiquitous cell-phone cameras, many people at a given event can be "instant photographers." Encourage people to take pictures at parish functions and share them. Similarly, be sure to have someone designated to take photos at official functions and share them online. For privacy and safety, do not allow others to "tag" individuals (especially children) in the photos (tagging permissions can be adjusted in the settings of your new media accounts).
Finally, use social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to connect with and follow local and national Catholic organizations, such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Then be sure to hit the "share" button or retweet their content to share your Catholic faith with the people you are connected with on these sites. To paraphrase a popular phrase, "If Jesus looked at your profile, would he know you are a Christian?"
"Be Not Afraid"
The move from traditional to new media has been profoundly disruptive, especially for those who are suspicious or distrustful of these new technologies. But with Catholic news media pioneers leading the way, catechetical leaders and others with an interest in the Church's mission of evangelization have many models for using the new mass media in our ministries and apostolates. Far from being afraid of new media, we must answer the call of the Second Vatican Council and move—without delay!—to put these technologies in the service of Jesus Christ and his Church.
Copyright © 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted to duplicate this work without adaptation for non-commercial use.
Excerpts from Pope Benedict XVI, Porta Fidei, copyright © 2011, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); Message for World Communications Day, copyright © 2011, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
Excerpts from Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents edited by Austin Flannery, OP, copyright © 1975, Costello Publishing Company, Inc., Northport, NY, are used with permission of the publisher, all rights reserved. No part of these excerpts may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without express written permission of Costello Publishing Company.
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