According to Facebook’s own statistics, there are more than 750 million active Facebook users worldwide, who, in all, spend over 700 billion minutes per month on the social-networking site. There are millions using Twitter, Youtube and Myspace. In a frequently post-Christian landscape, the question arises: What is our responsibility as Catholics in the face of this online social-networking phenomenon?
What Is “Social Networking”?
Social networking in general is any grouping of individuals into communities based on common interests, geographical location, occupational association or the like. Online social networking has become increasingly popular. Joining a social-networking website typically involves filling out a public profile highlighting one’s interests and personal philosophy, and adding a list of “friends” with whom to socialize. Facebook, the most popular social-networking site, enables its users to upload photos of themselves, post updates on current happenings, send messages and post links to various websites. For many, Facebook is a public forum for personal expression as well as a means of socialization.
A “Waste of Time”?
Some — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — criticize the use of social-networking sites like Facebook as time wasters. One Catholic blogger at Catholic Book Report called Facebook a “colossal waste of time,” writing: “Do I really need to know what someone I went to grade school with, and haven’t seen since 1994, had for dinner? I don’t think so.” Indeed, using Facebook for the wrong reasons can undoubtedly amount to a waste of time. It would be difficult to defend hours spent playing the game Mafia Wars or Farmville, for example, as anything other than a way to pass the time.
Are There Dangers?
Others claim that social-networking sites like Facebook are even dangerous. England’s Archbishop of Westminster, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, accused Facebook of contributing to a sense of social alienation and the breakdown of face-to-face communication. Archbishop Nichols told The Sunday Telegraph, “I think there’s a worry that an excessive use or an almost exclusive use of text and emails means that as a society we’re losing some of the ability to build interpersonal communication that’s necessary for living together and building a community.”
Case studies continue to be conducted on the subject. Inordinate dependence on social-networking websites for socialization cannot provide the kind of intimacy requisite for genuine interpersonal communication and may even increase one’s sense of isolation.
Notwithstanding the potential hazards, when used rightly Facebook and similar sites can provide a means of networking with other practicing Catholics. For example, it is not always easy to find other practicing Catholics serious about their religion. Catholic events such as Theology on Tap often have Facebook pages announcing upcoming meetings in one’s local area. A quick search on Facebook could produce new contacts and even new friends. It’s a common trend nowadays for people to send electronic invitations to events to others that they know on Facebook, which you might never know about otherwise. It’s just the way it is. Facebook is one more avenue for socializing, and without it potential opportunities for connecting could be lost. Facebook also includes online discussion groups for Catholics, and for pretty much anybody on pretty much any subject.
Facebook also provides a way to bear fruit in cyberspace. Christ says, “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples” (Jn 15:8). Should bearing fruit be restricted to “real life” and exclude cyberspace? Pope Benedict XVI doesn’t think so. In a message for World Communications Day 2011, the Pope encouraged the use of social-networking sites: “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” — that is, “if used wisely.” Pope Benedict warns, “It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.” Nevertheless, there are immense opportunities on the Internet for spreading the Gospel!
Evangelizing on Facebook
One simple way to evangelize on Facebook is by occasionally posting on your Facebook wall a quote from the Scriptures or from a saint. If you have 100 friends on your list, some of whom may not be practicing Christians, that’s potentially 100 people coming into contact with the Word who otherwise might not have, 100 people encountering the doctrines of the Church who otherwise would have no idea. Imagine the possibilities if you have 500 friends on your list — or 1,000 or more. Discussions — even debates — can begin via your simple wall post. Uploading a religious picture as your profile photo can also go a long way. Other ideas include posting links to good Catholic articles, engaging with friends’ profiles, posting in apologetic-type Facebook groups, and writing “notes” on important matters concerning the Faith.
Be Christ’s Presence
Yet above all let us call to mind these words of Pope Benedict: “To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preference and judgments that are fully consistent with the Gospel.” Let’s spread the Gospel by example. Let’s provide an alternative to the kind of presence one easily comes across on Facebook. Dress modestly in photos. Be kind and supportive. Express concern. “Like” friends’ statuses that you find positive. Reach out to lost souls. Defend our holy religion when necessary. Remember the seven spiritual works of mercy: to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to admonish sinners, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offenses willingly, to comfort the afflicted, and to pray for the living and the dead. Yet, social networking widens the scope of our Catholic and apostolic life in the 21st century. The vital point is to be Christ’s presence in cyberspace: “Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me” (Jn 15:4). TCA
Jamie Cassata is a freelance writer and received his Master’s of Theology & Christian Ministry from Franciscan University of Steubenville.