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We must engage with the online world. Here’s how to do it right

By Ronnie Convery

SOMETIMES I hear whispers. I hear it said that the Catholic Church today is focusing too much on fads such as the internet and social media, that it is losing touch with its core constituency.

In this week following Communications Sunday, I would like to respond to those whispers. Not with polemics or animosity, but rather with a few statistics.

There are 7.3 billion people on earth, and 3.4 billion are connected to the internet. Facebook has 1.44 billion people actively using the platform each month. Another 700 million people use Twitter and Instagram. It is accepted that media consumption trends are changing rapidly. The most recent study showed the average person in the western world has five social media accounts and spends around 1 hour and 40 minutes browsing these networks every day. Almost 90 per cent of Facebook traffic is from people on mobile devices.

Closer to home, almost 10,000 people follow Glasgow Archdiocese on its various social media platforms of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr. One of Archbishop Philip Tartaglia’s sermons last year was read by 120,000 people on Facebook – that is three times the Mass-going population of the archdiocese.

Need I go on? It is surely clear for anyone with eyes to see that any analysis of the life of modern man and woman must take clear account of the digital world in which they live. I use the word ‘live’ advisedly, for the truth is that many people ‘live’ more of their life in the digital environment than in the physical.

 

And so it is right and fitting that the Church should focus a significant part of its pastoral attention to this world.

Pope Francis understands this very well. He readily ‘talks the talk’ of digital communication, recently reminding young people that happiness is not an app they can download to their smartphones. He willingly poses for ‘selfies’ and devotes time to a monthly video message on YouTube, besides signing off on daily Twitter messages.

Scotland’s dioceses are embracing the technology, too, with all of our bishoprics now having a social media presence. But it is not enough simply to ‘be’ on social media. For the Church to be effective it must present the right image, it must be professional but pastoral, it must inspire and inform, it must challenge without frightening…

Archbishop Tartaglia spoke wisely of the need to be aware of ‘how’ we communicate in his letter for Communications Sunday. “As Christians we must always build bridges and open doors to dialogue and understanding,” he said. “The immediacy and instantaneousness of social media can sometimes tempt us towards angry exchanges and aggressive language. Hurling insults and abuse will simply entrench misunderstanding and close hearts and minds.”

As Pope Francis reminds us, when communicating digitally we may not see the person we are engaging with, but the dignity and respect we bring to our actual encounters should always be present in our digital ones. I ask you to consider whether you always communicate with mercy and, if not, to pay attention to the needs of those you communicate with, always remembering their innate human dignity.

 

Just a few months ago I was asked to give a talk on communication in the digital world, and I drafted a few golden rules for Catholics who wish to have an effective presence in cyberspace. They are:

  1. Be normal. Do not fill your timeline with pictures of processions, holy figures and links to shrines and sanctuaries. If you do that you will alienate everyone who is not already part of your world. Take an interest in all that’s happening. Post about sport or the weather or politics or art. We must always avoid the danger of being pigeonholed as fanatics.
  2. Be respectful. Do not resort to name calling if you disagree with someone on Twitter. Do not threaten with hell or damnation those whose views you take issue with on Facebook. Do not use offensive language about individuals or groups of people you disagree with.
  3. Make friendships outside your natural borders. If we don’t do this we become keepers of an aquarium rather then fishers of men.

The advice is simple, but I believe it can really make a difference.

As the Holy Father puts it in his message for Communications Sunday: “What we say and how we say it, our every word and gesture, ought to express God’s compassion, tenderness and forgiveness for all. Love, by its nature, is communication; it leads to openness and sharing.

If our hearts and actions are inspired by charity, by divine love, then our communication will be touched by God’s own power.”

 

– Ronnie Convery is the director of communications for Glasgow Archdiocese

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