Sunday 2 June the Church celebrated the 53rd World Communications Day. It was Pope Saint Paul VI who, in 1967, established the World Communications Day. The reason for establishing this day was to encourage an annual reflection on both the opportunities together with the challenges that modern means of social communications such as the press, motion pictures, radio, television as well as the internet, present to the Church in her spreading the gospel in today’s world.
This year’s message focused on the transitional shift that needs urgently to be brought about from network community to human community. As Pope Francis said in his very first sentence of this message: “Ever since the internet first became available, the Church has always sought to promote its use in the service of the encounter between persons, and of solidarity among all”. The rationale of this year’s reflection is so clear: information technology is there to faciliate human relationships and never to replace, weaken or destroy them.
Unfortunately this has not only been the case. We know that, more often, social networks have become prey of those who want to disseminate hatred, xenophobic attitudes and degrade the human dignity of other people who they wrongly consider as being inferior to them. Pope Francis lamented that, many a time, social network communities tend to exclude and not include. They emphasize more on what distinguishes certain group of people from others rather than on what unites the former with the latter.
“Everyone can see how, in the present scenario, social network communities are not automatically synonymous with community. In the best cases, these virtual communities are able to demonstrate cohesion and solidarity, but often they remain simply groups of individuals who recognize one another through common interests or concerns characterized by weak bonds. Moreover, in the social web identity is too often based on opposition to the other, the person outside the group: we define ourselves starting with what divides us rather than with what unites us, giving rise to suspicion and to the venting of every kind of prejudice (ethnic, sexual, religious and other). This tendency encourages groups that exclude diversity, that even in the digital environment nourish unbridled individualism which sometimes ends up fomenting spirals of hatred. In this way, what ought to be a window on the world becomes a showcase for exhibiting personal narcissism.”
Referring specifically to young people, Francis said that sadly, the Net, rather than promoting the culture of encounter, can highten more “our self-isolation, like a web that can entrap us”. He added that “young people are the ones most exposed to the illusion that the social web can completely satisfy them on a relational level. There is the dangerous phenomenon of young people becoming ‘social hermits’ who risk alienating themselves completely from society.”
In front of this existential catastrophe, caused by the ill use of the Net, how are we to combat it by overcoming these weak bonds, oppositions to other people, hatred and all sorts of personal narcissism that, continually, the internet offers to us on a golden plate? The Holy Father suggests that in order to go out from isolation, and cease being ‘social hermits’, we need to favour direct human relationships. As a matter of fact, the Pope said in his message, “the use of the social web is complementary to an encounter in the flesh that comes alive through the body, heart, eyes, gaze, breath of the other. If the Net is used as an extension or expectation of such an encounter, then the network concept is not betrayed and remains a resource for communion”.
In order to support this view the Holy Father quotes a very inspiring reflection from the acclaimed Bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia, who was a fourth century influential theologian and reformer of monastic life, Saint Basil the Great. This great Father of the Church taught that “nothing, in fact, is as specific to our nature as entering into a relationship one with another, having need of one another.”
Thus, in meeting with each other we start learning the great Christian and anthropological lesson that, as Pope Francis nicely put it, “as Christians, we all recognize ourselves as members of the one body whose head is Christ. This helps us not to see people as potential competitors, but to consider even our enemies as persons. We no longer need an adversary in order to define ourselves, because the all-encompassing gaze we learn from Christ leads us to discover otherness in a new way, as an integral part and condition of relationship and closeness”. By uniting ourselves with others as beings-in-relation, we live what Saint Paul writes to the Ephesians: Therefore, putting away falsehood, speak the truth, each to his neighbour, for we are members one of another (Eph 4:25).
Thus, as Pope Francis pointed out in his message, the mutual relationship of communion breads authentic trinitarian holiness. This was also the reflection of an Orthodox saint, St John Maximovitch, when he said:
“Holiness is not simply righteousness, for which the righteous merit the enjoyment of blessedness in the Kingdom of God, but rather such a height of righteousness that men are filled with the grace of God to the extent that it flows from them upon those who associate with them. Great is their blessedness; it proceeds from personal experience of the Glory of God. Being filled also with love for men, which proceeds from love of God, they are responsive to men’s needs, and upon their supplication they appear also as intercessors and defenders for them before God.”
Using the network according to God’s holiness means, as Maxim Gorky advocated, to “be good, be kind, be humane, and charitable; love your follows, console the afflicted; pardon those who have done you wrong.” In other words, as Pope Francis rightly observed, “opening the way for dialogue, for encounter, for “smiles” and expressions of tenderness… This is the network we want, a network created not to entrap, but to liberate, to protect a communion of people who are free”.
Hence, reconnecting humanly and not just technologically.
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap