VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- "Log on, but bring your brain, your Bible and
your Christian values with you" could summarize one of the Synod of
Bishops' messages to Catholics young and old.
Many people, and not only young people, are "immersed" in the digital
culture "in an ordinary and continuous manner," said the final document
of the synod on young people, the faith and vocational discernment.
Christians need to know the dangers of the medium -- from increasing
isolation to cyberbullying and exploitation, the synod said Oct. 27, but
they also must be part of the billions of conversations that take place
The synod document was peppered with references to social media and
the digital sphere but had two specific sections devoted to the topic:
one on the pervasive nature of digital media in modern life and the
other on evangelization and the digital sphere.
"Living in a widely digitalized culture," it said, "has very profound
impacts on the notion of time and space, on the perception of oneself,
of others in the world, on the way of communicating, learning and
Bishop Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture,
said Catholics and the church itself have work to do. Social media can
"hyper-intensify" the idea that fame, achievement, wealth and power are
the culture's most important values, which is one reason why
entertainers and sports figures have so many social media followers.
"We are at a moment when the Gospel's potential to 'disrupt' that
culture has never been so strong," Bishop Tighe said. "The Gospel
message wants to say fundamentally that we don't have to be in the
business of performing, of earning, of proving ourselves all the time.
God's love is unconditional, even when we mess up and make mistakes."
"The digital environment is not so tolerant of such things," he said,
which should give Christians extra incentive to reflect God's love and
Christina Antus, a writer and mother from Colorado, wrote a piece for
the Busted Halo website in September, which included advice about
putting down one's phone or tablet.
"I think anyone who has a presence online is impacted both positively
and negatively by this, and I think it is a big part of why people
should switch off" regularly and limit their time online, she told
Catholic News Service.
"Life offline offers a much different experience," she said.
"Switching off allows us to take a break from the digital noise and
really put our focus where it's most important: on our life and the
lives of those around us."
However, when online, she recommended: "being responsible with your
time and usage"; following pages and people "you enjoy and who bring
substance to your life"; and "if you see, hear or read something that
speaks to you, hit the share button. That's a fast, effective and easy
way to share the Gospel."
The synod document also raised questions about the digital world's
focus on images and the implications that has for a faith "based on
listening to the Word of God and on reading Scripture."
Natasa Govekar, director of the theological-pastoral section of the
Vatican Dicastery for Communication, which coordinates Pope Francis'
Instagram page, offered a different point of view.
"Faith comes from listening to the Word, but we must not forget that
it is an incarnate Word," that is, God become flesh in Jesus and has "an
image, a face," she said. "That's why from the first centuries this
Word that was listened to and celebrated in the liturgy also was painted
on icons and church walls."
Early Christian art was important not only because many people could
not read, but because the use of images "corresponds to the logic of the
Incarnation," she said. And the same could be said of the emphasis on
"The Word of God always reveals himself through the concreteness of
an image: the beauty of nature and art and especially through the light
on people's faces, faces transfigured by the Word they have welcomed in
their hearts," Govekar said.
The challenge for Christians today, she said, is to use digital media
"to prolong this audiovisual experience of the encounter with the Word
that became a face."
Bishop Tighe's office focuses on the cultural implications of the
digital world, the way it impacts education and the influence it has on
forming people's identity -- all of which are referred to in the synod
When social media first started taking off, he told CNS, some people
felt that for the church "it was an arena best avoided because the
reality is that it can be quite nasty" and polarizing.
But, he said, "if people with good values and good aspirations are
not present in that arena, we're abandoning one of the most important
forums we have."
The synod document also recognized how important the internet and social media are for connecting people and informing them.
Paul Jarzembowski, assistant director for youth and young adult
ministries at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was in Rome for
the synod and is very familiar with the online activity of young U.S.
"What young people seek on social media often depends on their level
of engagement with the church," he told CNS. "For instance, those who
are active in the faith may be seeking information on the latest news
about the church or wisdom from great Catholic speakers and
inspirational figures, whereas those who are less connected may be
searching for answers to the basic questions about God, the intersection
of science and faith, and how to live a good and moral life."
Age makes a difference, too, Jarzembowski said. As they graduate,
"face serious relationship challenges, enter the workforce, and engage
in the social or political landscape," young adults look for ways to
connect their faith with their daily lives.
Young adults, he said, want a "serious interactive engagement on
social media, but also desire a lived, in-person community to connect
with, find peers and mentors, and put their faith into action with the
help of those with similar interests or experiences."
The synod document called for Catholics not just to use digital media
to proclaim the Christian message, but "to imbue its cultures and its
dynamics with the Gospel."
The extraordinary possibility of the digital environment fostering an
"authentic culture of encounter," Bishop Tighe said, requires "being
attentive to the kind of language we use. It requires paying attention
to not relaying information that is negative, untrue or that we have not
verified for ourselves."
That, he said, "requires people to slow down a little bit, think a bit more and reflect on what they are doing" online.