Words of Life for Cutting Words

A Catholic Response to Teens on Social Media Writing Sites

With more and more young people reaching out to one another through social media, there has been an increased call for new forms of ministry to teens within these virtual worlds. With the advent of public writing sites that allow for the free-flowing expression of ideas through poetry and prose, there is a greater potential for darkness to rear its ugly head. This calls for Catholics to shine the light of Christ into that darkness as ministers of the Gospel. As we venture onto these writing sites, we can learn a great deal about how the current social-media culture seems to be shaping the way teens view and express their identity, their fears, and their pain. Pope Benedict and Pope Francis had much to say about Catholics and online communication in their World Communications Day messages. Drawing from their wisdom, let us consider the ways we can reach out to young people on the Internet. Our hope is that it sparks more dialogue about the role Catholic youth ministers and Catholic youth can play in responding to the pain teens experience while navigating the intense world of words on social-media sites.

The Emotional World of Online Teen Writing

One of the first things a visitor to these sites will discover from teen writing is that, along with the vampire stories and fan fiction and teen romance novels, there is a large percentage of poetry and prose that focuses on depression, cutting, and emotional brokenness. Here, many teens commiserate with one another over the harshness of their lives. These tender, hurting souls are posting brutally honest commentary about their circumstances, beautiful and often dark poetry describing their pain and despair, and rants that rage against the cruel world around them. Much of it is very difficult to read, not only because of the pain it describes, but even more so because of the hopelessness that lies behind that pain. Some could argue that these posts merely express the emotional drama that all teens experience, perhaps overstated for effect. But one could just as easily argue that these posts reflect the sad reality that our social media–rich culture has, in many ways, contributed to a climate of loneliness, abuse, and abandonment in the hearts of young people.

How can Catholics respond to teens who are living in this dark and challenging world of words? Pope Francis, in his message for the 2014 World Communications Day,1 has outlined some basic principles the faithful should consider when engaging the world through the Internet and social media. His words speak to the unity inspired by the love that Christ has shown to the world:

In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all. Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity. The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another. We need to resolve our differences through forms of dialogue which help us grow in understanding and mutual respect.2

Young people are certainly listening to one another online; but often, there seems to be very little hope in the writing or responses that are being posted. There is plenty of validation and camaraderie among these tortured teens. However, this virtual sharing of votes and comments in some sense may only serve to perpetuate the whole cycle of despondency among the teens. Sympathetic replies from kindred souls prompt the teen authors to turn out additional chapters, and their writing leads to further expressions of support. It leaves one to wonder if this is only a catharsis with no real resolution. Furthermore, with all the graphic descriptions of self-mutilation and suicidal ideation within the writing, there is a concern that the prose and poetry may actually be triggering the teens to initiate further self-abuse.

Teens are also writing about their struggles with identity, and especially their sexual identity. Many of the culturally and politically correct terms so prevalent in society have found their way into their posts: bi-sexual, bi-curious, pansexual, gender fluid, gender blind, transgender, and so on. The young people call for validation of the particular identity they say they have chosen; and yet there also appears to be an underlying sense of confusion and personal conflict behind the words. Given time and support, it is possible for these young people to work through these issues and come to a deeper understanding of who they are; but in the virtual world, blanket acceptance of these “life choices” is the norm. The young people often write about the “bigotry” of others, but express their feelings in such a way as to leave any discussion on the subject closed, lest anyone with a different opinion be labeled as intolerant. In the comments on these pages, many applaud the person’s choice without ever addressing the struggle expressed in the words. There is little discussion about the possibility of working through personal identity issues, and even less consideration of the deeper implications such “tolerance” has on the overall process of developing a spiritual identity.

Trust, Not Tracts

The Holy Father has offered a word as to how we in the Church can use media to communicate the Gospel to a hurting world. His call to engage others in a spirit of solidarity tells us that we must not simply offer messages of doctrine, but must learn to share our faith in a give-and-take that is based on mutual love and respect. We cannot be obscure virtual figures who disseminate information or preach to online individuals without getting to know them. Our response must be one of personal engagement:

It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply “connected”; connections need to grow into true encounters. We cannot live apart, closed in on ourselves. We need to love and to be loved. We need tenderness. Media strategies do not ensure beauty, goodness and truth in communication. The world of media also has to be concerned with humanity, it too is called to show tenderness. The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people. The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others. Personal engagement is the basis of the trustworthiness of a communicator. Christian witness, thanks to the internet, can thereby reach the peripheries of human existence.3

In crafting a response to young people, Catholics need to employ a gentler touch: building trust rather than passing out tracts, so to speak. Instead of launching into some sort of calculated discourse on Church teachings and Christian virtues, we need to read more deeply into the writing and pray to draw out the hidden meaning behind the words. We must look for the needs behind the anger and the longing behind the tears. Our model must be the encounters between Jesus and those He met along the road of life on His journey to the Cross. We must be willing to engage others the way Jesus engaged the woman at the well in John 4:1–42. Ostracized by her village and forced to draw water in the heat of the day, this was an individual full of suffering and sorrow. Rather than chastise this adulterous woman, Jesus, the all-knowing, all-loving Savior, chose to engage her in conversation. He offered her living water, though initially, she did not fully comprehend the deeper meaning behind His words. But slowly, the One without a bucket or dipper was able to draw up the pain and need from the well of this daughter’s aching heart. Her dialogue went from guarded irritation to awareness of her need; and in the end, she became open to being filled by the Messiah.

As we pray over the writings of these teens, we must ask God for the wisdom to see each person in the same way Christ saw this woman. In the pain of rejection, we can see the need for affirmation. In the despair of abuse and bullying, we can see the need for the safety of sacrificial love. Self-loathing should help us to understand the teen’s desire for something to fill the emptiness inside. Self-harm should alert us to the desperate cry for the soothing touch of a trusted hand. Each tear and tragic story must move us to listen with heaven’s heart and respond with truth, tenderness, and understanding. The love of Christ should cause us to spill words of healing and hope onto the reply pages of their posts. A vote does not have to be an endorsement of their ideology, but can be a knock at the door of a wounded heart. Each reply can be fashioned to speak to individuals where they are. As we meet on the common ground of our interests, we can point out the cleverness of wordplay, the relevance of each metaphor, and the unique stylistic choices made. As we reply we can also offer a word or two of wisdom, a sliver of humor and hope, and an overture of friendship without judgment. And as each door opens, we can bid the Savior to enter into the conversation and move hearts to change and grow.

A Listening Ear, a Healing Word

Building trust online is a slow process of understanding the pain behind the words and recognizing the beauty deep down in those broken hearts. We should always be aware that, while online communication can create a false sense of intimacy, we must still view each encounter as an opportunity to live out the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 15. It is best to approach each encounter as both a writer and someone with a gift for healing. Our words can be a spiritual balm to soothe the wounds the young people have suffered. We can offer understanding rather than approval for behaviors. We don’t need to accept beliefs contrary to our own, but we should spend time listening to each person’s thoughts before expressing our own thoughts in a gentle and loving way. As we build each online relationship with honesty and openness, this gentle process can lead to further conversation and eventual conversion. As Pope Francis has said:

May the image of the Good Samaritan who tended to the wounds of the injured man by pouring oil and wine over them be our inspiration. Let our communication be a balm which relieves pain and a fine wine which gladdens hearts. May the light we bring to others not be the result of cosmetics or special effects, but rather of our being loving and merciful “neighbours” to those wounded and left on the side of the road. Let us boldly become citizens of the digital world. The Church needs to be concerned for, and present in, the world of communication, in order to dialogue with people today and to help them encounter Christ. She needs to be a Church at the side of others, capable of accompanying everyone along the way.4

Particularly Painful Issues

Ministry to young women is often a difficult road to walk. To anyone familiar with the tragic realities of suicidal depression, cutting, and eating disorders, there is an intensely personal dynamic behind these self-harming behaviors. These young women see their bodies as detestable canvases upon which to write the sorrowful story of their lives, and they often reflect such misery in their writing. Each cut becomes a horrid brush stroke on a dark painting that is concealed from misunderstanding eyes. But at the same time, through their poetry, the hidden cuts are displayed in the relative safety of virtual reality. Their struggles with eating disorders are presented as a slow, sorrowful walk on a path towards a life wasting away with no one to notice or care. As these teen girls write, they seem to cling to their desperate words, hoping their hypnotic power might hold their lives in place for one more day. But, at the same time, they also see themselves inching deliberately toward the edge of an unavoidable abyss.

For young men, the issues seem to focus on loneliness and what it means to be a man in the absence of a father in their lives. Many have faced verbal and physical abuse and have no idea what it feels like to experience the love and security of a protector, the power of a strong teacher, or the tenderness of a gentle mentor. Searching for role models, men who will show them what it means to be a man, these teen boys are desperate for the kind of connection that only a man can bring. As they enter puberty, this can become sexualized, which can complicate their identity issues even more. Once lines have been crossed, this new identity can become cemented in their minds and cause them to shut down to the Gospel.

A Message of Hope and Healing

As Catholics, our message to these teens should be simple: “You are worthy. You are unique. You are lovable and loved by One who died for you. You are fearfully and wonderfully made by a Father who knows you more intimately than you know yourself.” As we engage in the daily give-and-take of postings and comments about nothing and everything, we can speak with the gentleness of Christ and slowly touch the hearts of these online teens. If we are gifted in our writing, we can post our own messages of hope that speak to the hurt while offering the love of the Savior as well. In order for these young people to find this hope, we need to move them beyond the small circle of trust they have built around their lives and walk with them up the Hill of the Skull to the Cross. Through our words, we can gently introduce these new writing friends to the One who can take their pain and sorrow to Calvary’s tree and free them from their bonds.

In concluding these remarks, let us look at a poem that grew out of these interactions with those who have suffered so much and found a quiet and dark corner from which to express their pain. The poem is called “Child of Sorrow.” It speaks of the One who was “cut” for them, upon whose flesh had been written all the sins of the world. Jesus is the God-Man who willingly took each bloody stripe of the whip, whose head was crowned with the piercing thorns, and whose very lifeblood was completely drained in payment for every sin. If anyone can relate to the pain and struggle these young people experience, it is this Man of Sorrows. In the poem, a young girl, just like them, takes the depths of her despair to the Cross:

Child of sorrow, fair of form,
Traveling through the fiercest storm,
Sees within the mirror, image dulled with deepest rage.

Sun will rise, another day,
Wears her mask, her part to play,
Walks the path of death, entrapped within a cruel cage.

No one hears her silent cry,
Now resolved to daily die,
Writes upon her battered flesh the bitter words of hate,

Used, abused, misunderstood,
Underneath a Gothic hood,
Sinks within her demon dream and feels her phantom fate.

Can there be no one who sees,
Or no ears to hear her pleas?
Must she now forever live in silent solitude?

Feels her racing heart retreat,
Waiting for its final beat,
Draws the blade her life of empty aching to conclude.

Wand’ring streets in stinging rain,
Searching now to end the pain,
Falls upon a heavy oaken door and enters in.

Moving past the blessed bath,
Sacred pews and angel’s wrath,
Now before the altar table draped in sick’ning sin.

Raises fists to heaven’s throne,
Bringing out her heart of stone,
Rages now before the God who mocks her from above.

Gazes now at tortured King,
On his brow a thorny ring,
Body beaten, sacred stripes to testify of love.

Sees the writing on His skin,
All of our forgiven sin,
Blood poured out in full to set now free our dying race.

Can there be a love so pure,
Or a payment so secure,
That His life should so completely take the sinner’s place.

Drops the blade upon the floor,
Her young flesh to cut no more,
For the Savior King’s cruel death now fills her weary soul.

Rises now a newborn child,
No longer to be reviled,
Weight of sin now lifted, body, mind and spirit whole.

Looks again upon the cross,
Contemplates Messiah’s loss,
All so she could gain a place at heaven’s open door.

Tears of joy now freely flow,
To her knees and bending low,
Grateful broken heart now free, her blood to flow no more.

Seeking out the sacred page,
For her mind now to engage,
Deep inside the words of hope, a purpose now to find.

Leaves the sanctuary filled,
Voices silenced, pain now stilled,
Now refreshed, renewed, reborn in body, soul and mind.

Child of sorrow, fair of form,
Having now survived the storm,
Sees within the mirror now the face of love restored.

Sun has risen, new day calls
Moves outside her broken walls,
To a world of hurting souls who need her gentle Lord.

Hope Rewritten

The response of these young people to the love of Christ that is shared will come. These teens need to know that someone is listening who understands, will not judge, and will not run away. It is a matter of walking along the road, sitting by the wells of loneliness, and reaching out to the ones who have been beaten down by the world. Eventually, these teens will begin to rewrite their stories in a hopeful way, even speaking hope into the lives of those who have shared their struggles. As they see that someone is willing to travel through the valley of the shadow of death with them, they will begin to see that there are indeed pastures of rest and mountaintops of joy before them. Instead of trying to be a counselor, an advisor, a fixer, or a sympathizer, our purpose should be to become a channel for the grace of God to speak into the lives of the young people. We may enter as strangers, but our grace-inspired words and gestures of love will be able to speak life into the callous and cutting words of the young people and allow the grace of God to work in heaven’s timing rather than our own.

Pope Benedict, in his message for the 2009 World Communications Day,5 has spoken particularly to young people in this regard, because he knows that they have a closer connection to their peers and a deeper familiarity with social media. As he writes:

It falls, in particular, to young people, who have an almost spontaneous affinity for the new means of communication, to take on the responsibility for the evangelization of this “digital continent”. Be sure to announce the Gospel to your contemporaries with enthusiasm. You know their fears and their hopes, their aspirations and their disappointments: the greatest gift you can give to them is to share with them the “Good News” of a God who became man, who suffered, died and rose again to save all people.6

The power that other teens have to spread the transforming love of Christ cannot be understated. They are wounded healers, empathetic peers who can connect in ways adults cannot. Indeed, they may be better able to break through the barriers of fear and sadness because they too have gone through some of the same struggles but have come out on the other side in the arms of their Savior.

The Body Reaches Out

As Catholics who are part of the larger Body of the Church, we have the unique privilege and awesome responsibility to reach out with the love of Christ to those who had been broken by the world. We have at our disposal the power that comes from living within a community of faithful believers who lift each other up day by day. We are part of a sacramental system that brings us tender forgiveness and eucharistic nourishment, baptismal promises and spiritual healing, shepherding counsel and holy bonds. When we reach out, one part of the Body extending itself into the virtual world of young people, we bring the strength of the entire Body to bear upon our efforts. While these hurting young people may be too far from us to join our individual congregations, they can still connect locally to the Body to which all Catholics belong. That sense of being accepted by those who will walk the road to salvation with them is really what this virtual dialogue is all about.

As we take the words of Pope Francis and Pope Benedict to heart, let us continue to dialogue with one another on the ways we can use the Internet to engage the wounded culture around us. If more and more Christians with a gift for words share their writings and their lives with those who are calling out with their broken words for something more, we will see a transformation of love that will lead many more into the Kingdom of heaven. In this age, where it is so easy to connect online, may there be more empathetic Catholics who are willing to bring the light of Christ’s love into the dark virtual worlds of these young people who are longing for the message of hope and healing.

  1. Pope Francis, “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter,” Message for the 48th World Communications Day (June 1, 2014), w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/communications/documents/papa-francesco_20140124_messaggio-comunicazioni-sociali.html.
  2. Francis, “Culture of Encounter,” ¶ 2.
  3. Francis, “Culture of Encounter,” ¶ 7.
  4. Francis, “Culture of Encounter,” ¶ 10.
  5. Pope Benedict, “New Technologies, New Relationships: Promoting a Culture of Respect, Dialogue and Friendship,” Message for the 43rd World Communications Day (May 24, 2009), w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/messages/communications/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20090124_43rd-world-communications-day.html.
  6. Benedict, “New Technologies, New Relationships,” ¶ 9.
Mark C. McCann About Mark C. McCann

Mark C. McCann is an author and ministry consultant with more than 30 years experience in ministry to children, youth, and families, having worked in schools, diocesan offices, and Christian radio. He newest book is To the Ends of the Earth, a 40-week study for Catholic men, published by Our Sunday Visitor. He currently lives in Connecticut with his Proverbs 31 wife and three incredible children and lives out his call each day to be a man of words. His ministry website is www.wordsnvisions.com.