In the last few months, life has moved online. Of course, you already know that from the wave of Zoom calls/quizzes, Facetimes, musician live streams, Twitter rewatch parties, streaming service movie debuts and online church services. It is said that a crisis accelerates social and cultural changes, and for the Church, it seems that the pandemic has forced us to take being present in the digital world more seriously. But beyond just streaming our services online, what should church online look like?
Well, some people in the Church have already been having this conversation, and a particularly good source of inspiration is Pope Francis’ World Communication Day Letters. Every year, in January, Pope Francis has focused on a specific aspect of communication and, in his signature style, has suggested how the Church can better communicate itself. Here are just a few of his key insights on how the Church should approach the internet.
Pope Francis has often spoken about how he wants the Church to go out to the ‘peripheries’ and to reach those who are far away. In striking language, he famously expressed, ‘I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.’
His desire for the Church to be familiar with the streets and those who are struggling, is also exactly how he views the internet too.
'The digital highway is ... a street teeming with people who are often hurting, men and women looking for salvation or hope. By means of the internet, the Christian message can reach “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Keeping the doors of our churches open also means keeping them open in the digital environment so that people, whatever their situation in life, can enter, and so that the Gospel can go out to reach everyone.’
Those last lines about keeping the digital door open ring true now that the doors of our churches are closed more than ever before, but it brings home his point - we need to be where the people are. That principle means that we need to be present to the digital world, that it is not optional, because we need to be there for those who are suffering and for those who are looking for answers.
Pope Francis is keenly aware that the virtual world of the internet can also cause people not to be present to each other in the real world. Because of this, the Pope emphasises that our online presence, as a Church, should lead to encounter.
‘If a family uses the Net to be more connected, to then meet at table and look into each other’s eyes, then it is a resource. If a Church community coordinates its activity through the network, and then celebrates the Eucharist together, then it is a resource. If the Net becomes an opportunity to share stories and experiences of beauty or suffering that are physically distant from us, in order to pray together and together seek out the good to rediscover what unites us, then it is a resource.’
Here, it is clear that Pope Francis appreciates the ability of the internet to bring people together and to create communion.
‘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 ... 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.’
Authenticity has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, but the pope also sees this as a key way the Church should behave online. To Pope Francis, it is not enough to simply use modern mediums, he wants the Church to stand out from the noise and negativity, to be wise in the digital world.
‘It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal. Social networks can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division between individuals and groups. The digital world is a public square, a meeting-place where we can either encourage or demean one another, engage in a meaningful discussion or unfair attacks.’
This sounds reminiscent of the infamous Twitter mobs and cancel culture which is so pervasive online. Pope Francis calls us to be better than that, not to be reactionaries or to be swept up in a group but to be ourselves and to act at all times as witnesses.
The pope also identifies how powerful stories are, and how important it is for the Church to tell the stories of its people. Here, he talks of how stories shape us.
‘Human beings are storytellers … Stories influence our lives, whether in the form of fairy tales, novels, films, songs, news, even if we do not always realize it … Stories leave their mark on us; they shape our convictions and our behaviour. They can help us understand and communicate who we are.’
This fundamental human love of storytelling can already be seen all over social media. As social media platforms are geared foremost to people not organisations, the Church, with its tradition of personal testimony, can really harness this. The pope also points out that stories were one of Jesus’ key ways of communicating.
‘Jesus spoke of God not with abstract concepts, but with parables, brief stories taken from everyday life. At this point life becomes story and then, for the listener, story becomes life: the story becomes part of the life of those who listen to it, and it changes them.’
Through using grounded, relatable stories, Jesus revealed to us the nature of God, perhaps most famously through the story of a father who loves his son no matter what he does. Stories are powerful because we can enter into them, we can be the son in the arms of the father, and therefore understand the love of God in a truly meaningful way.
We hope that this quick read has given you some ideas about how you can be the church online, you can find Pope Francis’ full letters here.
Photo credit: © Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk