Our preachers must lead people to align themselves with the Church, filling the chasm of the past two or more generations of those not in touch with this treasury of truth. The goal is eternal salvation, the growth of the Church is in the balance.
Enter the “digital continent.” This term was coined by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 to define the world of social media that has transformed patterns of communication and human relationships. It seems a new light is dawning on this “continent” for preaching as well, according to his letters to the Pontifical Council on Communications over the last two years. His May 16, 2010, message for the 44th World Communications Day, entitled, “The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word,” reveals the Holy Father’s vision for our age: using new media as a tool for preaching. The following excerpt speaks especially to young men preparing for priestly ministry:
Responding adequately to this challenge amid today’s cultural shifts, to which young people are especially sensitive, necessarily involves using new communications technologies. The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity, makes us appreciate all the more St. Paul’s exclamation: “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). The increased availability of the new technologies demands greater responsibility on the part of those called to proclaim the Word, but it also requires them to become more focused, efficient and compelling in their efforts. Priests stand at the threshold of a new era: as new technologies create deeper forms of relationship across greater distances, they are called to respond pastorally by putting the media ever more effectively at the service of the Word. 1
Clearly, the Holy Father is talking about the responsible use of social media (the Internet, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter), by those called to proclaim the Word. This amounts to acquiring better focus in our pastoral response.
On February 7, 2011, the Holy Father took up this topic again in his most recent address to the plenary assembly of the Congregation for Catholic Education:
In these days you also studied the draft of the document on the Internet and formation in the seminaries. Because of its capacity to surmount distances and put people in mutual contact, the Internet presents great possibilities also for the Church and her mission. With the necessary discernment for its intelligent and prudent use, it is an instrument that can serve not only for studies, but also for the pastoral action of future presbyters in different ecclesial fields, such as evangelization, missionary action, catechesis, educational projects, and the management of institutes. Also of extreme importance in this field is to be able to count on adequately prepared formators who will be faithful guides and always up-to-date, in order to support the candidates to the priesthood in the correct and positive use of the media. 2
His insights set the stage for updating seminary homiletics courses to include chapters on how to enhance preaching through the use of digital media. There is no avoiding it. Now is the time for us to consider how to eliminate the word “boring” from the feedback of the people regarding preaching in most Catholic parishes. You know the statistics concerning Mass attendance. Preaching using the new media may improve those statistics by keeping more in tune with people on the digital continent.
The aim should not be to change the preacher’s God-given personality, but rather to make him more aware of the importance of preaching the wealth of eternal truth given us in the Church’s three-year cycle of lectionary readings. If the homily holds the primacy of place in the Liturgy of the Word (Lumen Gentium §25), then we need more powerful and meaningful preaching to reach the people in the pews and increase their numbers.
Let us approach the question of preaching on the digital continent from three aspects: 1) this is an exciting and challenging TIME; 2) accept the daunting CHALLENGE; and 3) consider that the GOAL is the eternal salvation of the people in the pews—and those online.
We Are Entering a Time That Is Exciting and Challenging
At the Holy Father’s bidding, we are beginning to ask how to train the seminarian in the homiletics class to use the new media for his work of preaching. The Holy Father prompts us to look at the necessary elements:
The new technologies are not only changing the way we communicate, but communication itself, so much so that it could be said that we are living through a period of vast cultural transformation. This means of spreading information and knowledge is giving birth to a new way of learning and thinking, with unprecedented opportunities for establishing relationships and building fellowship. 3
The Holy Father here elaborates on how online social networks have changed the culture by transforming how we communicate, learn, and think. His insights certainly have implications for the preacher: the door is open for us to present new methodologies in homiletics classes on how to preach more effectively from the pulpit to the faithful online, as well as in church.
When Benedict XVI addressed the plenary assembly of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications on February 8, 2011, he challenged professors of homiletics by saying:
The world of communication is of interest to the whole cultural, social and spiritual universe of the human person. If the new languages have an impact on the way of thinking and living, they also affect, in some way, the world of faith, its intelligence and its expression. According to a classic definition, theology, understood as reflective and critical knowledge, is not foreign to cultural changes underway. The digital culture poses new challenges to our capacity to speak and to listen to a symbolic language that speaks of transcendence. In the proclamation of the Kingdom, Jesus himself was able to use the elements of the culture and the environment of his time: the flock, the fields, the banquet, the seeds, etc. Today we are called to discover, also in the digital culture, significant symbols and metaphors for persons, which can be of help when speaking of the Kingdom of God to contemporary man.4
This is, indeed, an incredible articulation of the desires of Vatican II, seeking to make the message of the Church come alive in our time. The Holy Father cites the fact that the new languages of the digital culture can speak of the transcendence of the Lord. Professors of homiletics need to discover and integrate new parables, symbols, and metaphors for preaching to modern people of faith.
Accepting the Challenge
Perhaps one solution is for the USCCB to invite the nation’s homiletic professors to participate in the forum that the Holy Father is calling for. It is always intriguing to me that when we need information on areas that involve the expertise of particular individuals, such persons are rarely invited to participate in that discussion. It is much like politicians discussing how educational organizations should operate without asking professional educators for their consideration.
Another discussion might center on the use of media devices in preaching. For example, are we afraid that using iPads at the ambo will seem “unholy”? Fr. Paolo Padrini, a consultant with the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and developer of the iBreviary application for iPhones, states that this need not be so. In an interview with Zenit News Service, he said:
What is important is to balance the use of these instruments through strong spirituality and profound faith, with habits such as participation in one’s parish, and the living of the liturgy so that one can really live through these instruments the prospect of the faith, which is never an individualist but an ecclesial prospect…
…Benedict XVI said it just at the end of his intervention in the congress that was held recently in Rome called Testimoni Digitali (Digital Witnesses), when he said that one must not fall into the use of the instruments at all cost but that it is always necessary to have the heart of a pastor…
…If I am a true priest, I can be so with a telephone in my hand, with a Bible in the other and I can be so with a newspaper under my arm, because it isn’t these instruments that speak alone, but our faith which is made of flesh and which speaks to the flesh; that is why my flesh will be the true synthesis.
We must be formed from the spiritual point of view and then be able to use these resources well from the technological-practical point of view. 5
Bishop Ron Herzog, a member of the USCCB Communication Committee, addressed the November 15, 2010, meeting of the United States bishops in similar fashion. He spoke to the question of social media and the Church: “I am here today to suggest that you should not allow yourselves to be fooled by its appearance. Social media is proving itself to be a force with which to be reckoned. If not, the church may be facing as great a challenge as that of the Protestant Reformation.”6
This statement gives us exciting things to ponder. If we are successful in turning preaching around, to remove that “boring” word, then church attendance should increase significantly. Consider that Bishop Herzog mentioned that a single electronic message from the USCCB presently reaches 25,000 fans a day on their Facebook page. How many parishes’ total Sunday attendance would it take for a diocese to reach that many people? To the extent our preaching is involved in the new media, we will increase the active membership of parish communities.
Perhaps that is the reason the Holy Father talks about new parables for us to preach. Note how Bishop Herzog summarizes the following challenges:
When the Church does attempt to evangelize the Digital Continent, it has some serious challenges to overcome. Most of us don’t understand the culture. One of the greatest challenges of this culture to the Catholic Church is its egalitarianism. Anyone can create a blog; everyone’s opinion is valid. And if a question or contradiction is posted, the digital natives expect a response and something resembling a conversation. We can choose not to enter into that cultural mindset, but we do so at great peril to the Church’s credibility and approachability in the minds of the natives, those who are growing up in this new culture. This is a new form of pastoral ministry. It may not be the platform we were seeking, but it is an opportunity of such magnitude that we should consider carefully the consequences of disregarding it.
Secondly, the Church cannot abandon legacy communication outlets while it invests in the new media. Although the baby boomers may be going to Facebook to stay in contact with their grandchildren, they still use newspapers, radio, television and books. Those media have attributes and strengths that social media does not. Not to mention the fact that most financial donors to the Church still rely on these legacy media. So the Church needs to continue investing in those efforts, while also investing in social media.
Finally, if as bishops you acknowledge that social media is not the latest fad, but a paradigm shift, please accept the fact that your staffs—and perhaps you as well—will need training and direction. In the past, the church would often build new parish structures, knowing that people would recognize the church architecture and start showing up. On the Digital Continent, “if you build it, they will come” does not hold true. It takes careful strategizing and planning to make social media an effective and efficient communication tool, not only for your communications department, but for all of the church’s ministries. We digital immigrants need lessons on the digital culture, just as we expect missionaries to learn the cultures of the people they are evangelizing. We have to be enculturated. It’s more than just learning how to create a Facebook account. It’s learning how to think, live and embrace life on the Digital Continent. 7
These three challenges: 1) egalitarianism, 2) preservation of legacy media, and 3) the training needed in this paradigm shift to social media, pose serious concerns as we learn to communicate to the present generation from many venues.
It is, therefore, a requirement that we move with reverence in this direction. Know that time is not on our side to sit and discuss for a decade how to do this. It must be done now, within months, not years. Professors of homiletics must be trained on how the secular world uses social media to interact with people. (A good example of this model is Fr. Padrini’s successful Pope2You.net website.) Our Church, with the greatest message in the world, needs to do no less than the best possible. We have God to communicate.
The Goal Is Eternal Salvation
We need to remember that we are training preachers how to help people gain eternal salvation. This means bringing the people to that metanoia which will truly change the direction of their lives. Young men, about to be ordained, should be fully equipped to preach in such a way as to convert people, to convey each week the messages that that will encourage them to change their lives and grow in holiness. Our preachers must lead people to align themselves with the Church, filling the chasm of the past two or more generations of those who are not in touch with this treasury of truth. The goal is indeed eternal salvation, and the growth of the Church is in the balance.
The Holy Father’s invitation to engage the digital continent compels us to rethink homiletic instruction in seminaries. This is especially critical, given the findings in the following document, Fulfilled in Your Hearing, published by the Bishop’s Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry:
Social science research contends that the oral presentation of a single person is not a particularly effective way to impart new information or to bring about a change in attitude or behavior. It is, however, well suited to make explicit or to reinforce attitudes or knowledge previously held. The homily, therefore, which normally is an oral presentation by a single person, will be less effective as a means of instruction and/or exhortation than of interpretation—that is, as a means of enabling people to recognize the implications, in liturgy and in life, of the faith that is already theirs. 8
Obviously, we need to use a wide array of tools and venues, rather than just the voice of the preacher, to instruct, as well as interpret, the great treasury of truth the Church has to offer. Surely textbook skills are necessary to provide an important foundation for the training of preachers. But now the task is to add to that arsenal to enable these men to preach even more effectively—and to a wider congregation. What follows are some proposals for improving seminary homiletic programs.
Given the popularity of iPads, iPods, and smart phones, it is likely that people will continue to bring such electronic devices into church with them. Parishes regularly have to remind the congregation to turn off these devices before Mass begins. Is it not probable that those now downloading such applications as iMissal and iBreviary will substitute these for missalettes? On a side note, Benedictine Father Paul Gunter, a professor of the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy, Rome, and Consulter to the Office of the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff, recently remarked on the possible revival of printed missalettes. This, he believes, might come as a result of the 2011 translation of the Roman Missal. 9 But we should note that the new missalette is already “printed,” that is, electronically accessible, on iPads and iPhones.
In the absence of getting people to bring their Bibles to church, iPads and iPhones would allow them to instantly access scriptural texts. When a preacher refers to a specific text, the congregation will find it quicker by referring to those devices than by paging through a paper copy of the Bible. This also expands the congregation’s ability to follow other Scripture passages referred to by the preacher, but not available in the pew missalettes.
Another way in which preachers might enter the digital continent is not too far off. The preacher could use the iPad as an ambo teleprompter to help him focus on the outline of the homily, to avoid going off on a tangent. Could this be another way to keep preachers from becoming boring because they repeat themselves—or preach on the same theme each week? Preachers could also use ambo teleprompters to establish the pace of their homily delivery.
In line with using the iPad as an ambo tool, software could be developed for the preacher to download onto his iPad to aid in preparing the homily manuscript. Additionally, he could use the iPad as his personal video camera to help him rehearse his homily and work on those sections needing revision before delivering it at Mass.
We should not fall into the argument that social media is just another fad. Reiterating his warning about this, Bishop Herzog states:
Although social media has been around for less than 10 years, it doesn’t have the makings of a fad. We’re being told that it is causing as fundamental a shift in communication patterns and behavior as the printing press did 500 years ago. And I don’t think I have to remind you of what happened when the Catholic Church was slow to adapt to that new technology. By the time we decided to seriously promote that common folk should read the Bible, the Protestant Reformation was well underway. 10
Based on these comments, it is critical that texts on homiletics include a chapter on using social media among the other preaching skills.
Many parishes already make homilies available to the members of the parish, even preparing them to take home after the Mass at which they were preached. Thus, there is no time for editing, and so proper continuity in delivery and transition is necessary. The iPad should be welcomed as an aid for that continuity and fluidity of delivery. Further, it would be beneficial to the homebound if the parish would make DVDs of the homily available to them.
These homilies, recorded live, could also be uploaded to the parish website in a YouTube modality, another way for the priest’s message from a given Sunday to reach the people of the parish who are homebound, or who want to hear it again to be moved by a particular point. Now that would not be boring!
To assist in this training, perhaps the USCCB could produce video tutorials on their website for the clergy, addressing the skills needed to optimize this technology.
These are important, practical ways of implementing the Holy Father’s vision of using new media as a tool for preaching. His call to professors of homiletics, priests, and seminarians is urgent. It is not going away. I often say to my seminarians that the gift of preaching, given at their ordination, is a four-letter word: WORK.
Enter the digital continent!
- Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI for the 44th World Communications Day, “The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word,” May 16, 2010. ↩
- www.zenit.org… ↩
- Message of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI for the 45th World Communications Day, “Truth, Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age,” June 5, 2011. ↩
- www.zenit.org… ↩
- www.zenit.org… ↩
- Social media: Friend or Foe, Google or Hornswoggle? Presented by Bishop Ron Herzog, USCCB Communication Committee, November 15, 2010, USCCB website. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- USCCB, “Fulfilled in Your Hearing,” Washington, D.C., 1982, p. 26. ↩
- www.zenit.org… ↩
- “Social media: Friend or Foe, Google or Hornswoggle?” Bishop Ron Herzog, USCCB Communication Committee, November 15, 2010, USCCB website. ↩