When You Pray, Open Your App: Technology, Prayer, and Catechesis
by Jonathan F. Sullivan
Executive Director of the Department of Evangelization, Education, and Liturgy
Diocese of Lafayette, IN
Prayer is an integral component of catechesis, for "communion with Jesus Christ leads the disciples to assume the attitude of prayer and contemplation which the Master himself had . . . When catechesis is permeated by a climate of prayer, the assimilation of the entire Christian life reaches its summit" (General Directory for Catechesis, no. 85).
The practice of Christian prayer is always situated within particular historical and cultural contexts. In recent years, the emergence and widespread adoption of new digital communication tools has presented new challenges and opportunities for how the Church promotes prayer and how the faithful practice it.
While it is hard to pinpoint an exact start date for the internet (ARPANET, the direct predecessor to the modern internet, went online in 1969), the introduction of the World Wide Web in the 1990s and advances in telecommunications technologies (including wireless data delivery) have made networked information sharing nearly ubiquitous in American society. Although a "digital divide" does exist (poor, undereducated, and rural Americans are much less likely to use digital technologies), eighty-five percent of Americans report using the Internet on a regular basis.1
The result is a world more connected than the wildest dreams of Johann Gutenberg, Samuel Morse, or Alexander Graham Bell. And yet, for all the connectedness we enjoy with people across the world, many individuals increasingly find themselves isolated from people across the room. Studies are finding that technology users today are experiencing a decrease in empathy and face-to-face interactions and an increased difficulty engaging in sustained conversation.2
This disconnection has perilous implications for the possibility of encountering Jesus Christ in the modern world. If, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, "we cannot love the God we cannot see if we do not love the brother or sister we do see" (no. 2840), how much harder will it be to love God when our attention is turned away from the brother or sister in front of us?
Pope Francis focuses on the unitive and dissociative elements of new media in his Message for the 48th World Communications Day when he teaches, "The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbors, from those closest to us," because "communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement." That is, communication always involves an encounter between two persons, even when obscured by a screen. In this, Pope Francis echoes Pope Benedict XVI:
We also need to be aware that the virtual world will never be able to replace the real world, and that evangelization will be able to make use of the virtual world offered by the new media in order to create meaningful relationships only if it is able to offer the personal contact which remains indispensable (Verbum Domini, no. 113).
This "personal contact," which Pope Francis calls "a culture of encounter," is not antithetical to the use of new communication tools. The Holy Father stresses in his message that "good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, grow in unity." The question facing catechists, however, is how the use of technology—and the culture it engenders—promotes or hinders our communication with God and ability to foster encounters with Jesus Christ through prayer.
Even in the short amount of time that people have used the internet for social networking, commerce, communication, and other activities, certain patterns have arisen. While it would be premature to say that these patterns are set, it does seem that a "digital culture"—a set of behaviors, arts, beliefs, and institutions—is beginning to emerge.
Digital behaviors include carrying mobile devices, responding to notifications, sending text messages, and sharing previously invisible or private aspects of our daily lives. Digital arts encompass mash-ups, memes, alternate reality games, and the ubiquitous selfie. Digital beliefs include the value of increasing speed, the right to free and unfettered access to information, and the importance of trust in online relationships (both personal and commercial).
This digital culture is having an increasing impact on all facets of human activity, whether digital or IRL ("in real life"). To take one example: the proliferation of mobile, connected devices has created the expectation that an individual will always be online and within reach, no matter how physically far away they may be. In essence, the world has shrunk. It is now as easy to contact someone halfway across the world as it is someone halfway across town.
Such technologies are most likely a net positive, but the expectation of connectedness—and the corresponding obligation that places on people to always be ready to interrupt what they are doing for the next call, text, or notification—may not be having such a positive influence on human flourishing. This is manifests especially when it interrupts conversation between friends, a moment of grace between parent and child, or the sacred silence of the Mass.
The expectation for connectedness can even run the other way, so that a person with a cell phone feels obligated to share updates, pictures, or video, in real time, with followers. It is no longer remarkable to witness a sea of glowing cell phones at concerts, sporting events, or papal liturgies. This desire to share, while laudable, does have the consequence of removing the person from the situation in which they are engaged. They are no longer encountering, but instead mediating the transfer of information to others: they are not fully present, but instead removed behind a screen. This trend is especially unnerving in the liturgy, the nature of which demands full and active participation by the faithful (cf. Sacrosanctum concilium, no. 14).
The evolving digital culture presents a number of challenges and opportunities for the Christian faith in general and for the practice of prayer in particular. For instance, new digital technologies have led to a decreasing emphasis on the importance of the physical world in the secular imagination. While the distance between mind and body in philosophy has been increasing ever since Descartes declared, "Cogito, ergo sum," the gulf has only increased in recent years as we have become accustomed to "inhabiting" online spaces.
In online spaces, people exist in an idealized world as disembodied consciousnesses. Any sensory information is mediated through screens, speakers, and keyboards, and this mediation is remarkably easy to overlook, as anyone who has become immersed in a video game can attest. Without the constraints of physical matter, users are free to craft their own idealized avatar that may bear little resemblance to their "real life" self. Even on social networking sites, we tend to choose profile pictures that highlight our best features and minimize our flaws, even taking hundreds of pictures in order to find the one "perfect" picture to share.
This acceptance of a body/mind dualism is a direct challenge to the incarnational basis of Christian anthropology, which understands persons to be embodied spirits: "It is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures unified, but rather their union forms a single nature" (CCC, no. 365). Sacred Scripture regularly attests to the sacred nature of our physical forms, comparing us to clay in the potter's hands (Jer 18:6) and proclaiming that God knows the number of hairs on our heads (Lk 12:7).
A pressing question for pastors to address with their connected congregations will be to what extent these mediated, idealized selves can enter into authentic communion with one another. Jesus promises, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Mt 18:20). Is this true in cyberspace? Or does authentic presence require more than our consciousness?
In many ways, our digital avatars inhabit spaces of empty symbolism, even when we attempt to inject religious meaning into them. For instance, while some "digital churches" allow avatars to "light" a digital candle, such representations rob the symbol of their full power. Digital candles illuminate without sacrifice—that is, they are not consumed—and thus they lose their connection to Christ's sacrificial act on the Cross. In a very real way, digital candles (and their electric counterparts in the real world) denote a "Christ without the Cross."
This empty symbolism is also found in the "cheap engagement" promoted by online activism and social networking. In the wake of tragedies and natural disasters, social media lights up with people offering opinions and sharing links. This gives the illusion of activity while doing little to actually alleviate suffering, promote solidarity with the poor and vulnerable, or address systemic problems. It is not the "culture of engagement" between persons encouraged by Pope Francis, but a culture of immediate response that substitutes the click of a mouse for authentic social justice.
All of this is not to say that the emerging digital culture does not also provide opportunities to engage the faithful in their life of prayer. Just as we are encouraged to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thes 5:17) in the physical world, finding ways to pray within the context of the digital culture is the work of all connected Christians. As with many facets of society, digital communication has opened new vistas for learning about and engaging in Christian prayer. The task for catechists is to help the faithful identify and adopt those methods that will deepen their lives of prayer.
One opportunity that is increasingly employed in catechesis is the countercultural nature of silence in prayer and liturgy. Pope Benedict XVI devoted his 2012 Message for World Communications Day to silence, teaching:
If God speaks to us even in silence, we in turn discover in silence the possibility of speaking with God and about God . . . In speaking of God's grandeur, our language will always prove inadequate and must make space for silent contemplation. Out of such contemplation springs forth, with all its inner power, the urgent sense of mission, the compelling obligation "to communicate that which we have seen and heard" so that all may be in communion with God (1 Jn 1:3).
Perhaps because their lives are so full of distractions and a cacophony of alerts and alarms, many young people are finding an increased value in simple silence, especially before the Blessed Sacrament. Disengaging from the speed of digital communication and returning to a more human pace can help engender clarity and peace (even if young people find such a pace initially uncomfortable), which is carried back into the digital world. Catechetical programs can tap into that power by integrating time for silence and deliberation into catechetical prayer. Attending to the importance of liturgical silence is another way to help the faithful refocus their attention from electronic signals to the eternal.
The great treasure of Catholic art and music also gives us an opportunity to use beauty to evangelize in a culture that increasingly relies on audio and visual mediums. While Christianity in the last 500 years has relied heavily on the written word, new media is altering reading habits. Fortunately, the declining costs of digital storage and high-speed Internet access have made disseminating visual media achievable for parishes, ministries, and individual apostolates (as witnessed by the wide number of Catholic blogs, podcasts, and video producers making digital content available across the globe).
Catechists can make use of this rich treasury by encouraging reflection on sacred art, producing PowerPoint presentations and other digital aids for prayers such as the Angelus or Chaplet of Divine Mercy, and directing adults to good resources online. These efforts are aided by growing online collections of appropriate religious art available in the public domain or under Creative Commons licenses, although the Church should not neglect her traditional role as a patron in the creation of new religious art.
Finally, while acknowledging that face-to-face encounters are an indispensable part of Christian fellowship, digital tools can help the faithful to maintain and strengthen connections with one another when physical presence is not possible. Social media platforms may be used to request prayers and respond to prayer requests, while video conferencing services such as Skype can be used to facilitate prayer together across great distances. Multimedia presentations and videos may also be employed to make known the needs of communities across the world— especially in areas marked by poverty or violence—so that local communities can respond with spiritual and material assistance.
Over the centuries, the Church has exercised careful discernment as new technologies and practices have arisen, adopting what is good for the proclamation of the Gospel. In a time of rapid technological change, this task may be more daunting but is no less vital. As the means of social communication affect how persons communicate with each other, so too will they affect how we think about and practice communication with God.
In this we can take comfort in the words of Jesus Christ: "Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old" (Mt 13:52). As communication grows more varied and complex, the task of catechesis and forming the faithful in lives of prayer remains constant, even in the digital continent.
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2 Lauren Cassani Davis, "The Flight From Conversation," The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/10/reclaiming-conversation-sherry-turkle/409273 (accessed November 10, 2015).
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Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. (LEV); General Directory for Catechesis, copyright © 1998, LEV; Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from Pope Benedict XVI, Domini Verbum, copyright © 2010, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City (LEV); Pope Paul VI, Sacrosanctum Concilium, copyright © 1963, 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.