Posted on: 11 July 2021
Author:Sister Joan Kerley
The Challenge of Communication in an Age of Technology: A Franciscan Perspective
Sister Joan Kerley, FMSJ
One of my favourite poems is a short poem by Emily Dickinson: “A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.” Words have the capacity to enhance life or destroy it. This can be easily seen today on social media. In a moment, a person’s reputation can be destroyed by malicious gossip; world politics can be changed by fake news and internet hacking; disasters can be seen as they happen, and immediately “Go Fund Me” pages can raise thousands of pounds to assist the victims. Some see social media as the saviour of all things while others think it is the devil incarnate. Both can justify their claims but, whichever opinion we hold, the fact is it is here to stay. How can we use social media in a way that is both growth producing and spiritually sound?
In Francis of Assisi and the Future of Faith, Daniel Horan, OFM presents Francis of Assisi as a role model for us today because he grappled with the meaning of faith in a time of violence, class struggle and the emergence of new world views. (Location 807) Use of social media and the speed of modern communication has caused people to grapple with this new way of communicating and living. Francis faced similar questions, and his answer was to seek God’s voice through prayer and listening to both Scripture and his own experience. Horan reflects on 3“Admonitions” which may help us:
1. Admonition VII: “Let Good Action Follow Knowledge.” The early Franciscans knew the danger that education and social status could pose to building a relationship with God and others. Francis proposed living a simple lifestyle to counter this. If we humbly realize that all we have comes from God, then, like Francis, we can use our talents in the service of God and others.
2. Admonition XII: “Knowing the Spirit of the Lord.” Horan notes that Francis tells us to recognize God working in our lives. If we don’t, our human weakness will prevent us from seeing God in all things and we may despair when we witness the tragedies that are present all around us.
3. Admonition XIII, titled Patience. He states that Francis is one who is patient, even in the midst of pain and suffering. “When tempted to protest situations that render us embarrassed or unappreciated, patience is the humble person’s response… Only through patience, encountering others where we find them and not where we would like them to be, can we make peace.” (Location 848)
Later in the book, he reflects on Francis’ spirituality which was to reflect on the Gospel and then go out to where people lived as missionaries to preach the Gospel by their lives. This was a new approach to ministry in his day and Horan believes that the internet is a “frontier” place today where Franciscans need to be present. He writes: “The reality of the internet and its style of communication challenges the status quo… but it is not going to go away! The church needs a new way of interacting with the culture of today’s world. This way of reaching out to people where they are without prejudice is very Franciscan. “(Location 1195) Reflecting on the question, “How are we on the Internet?”, he believes that Franciscans should counter the shadow side of the internet by being people of peace when using it. Another area to be cautious about is spending too much time using social media and not interacting with the people who are in our lives. We need to take time to foster face-to-face relationships, pray and simply sit and admire God’s creation.
In his Encyclical, Fratelli Tutti: On Fraternity and Social Friendship, Pope Francis makes similar points in “The Illusion of Communication”. (Paragraphs 42-50) He laments the digital campaigns that promote hatred or expose people to the “risk of addiction, isolation and a gradual loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development of authentic interpersonal relationships.” He writes: “Digital relationships, which do not demand the slow and gradual cultivation of friendships, stable interaction or the building of a consensus that matures over time, have the appearance of sociability. Yet they do not really build community; instead, they tend to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable. Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity.” (Para.43) He notes: “Saint Francis “heard the voice of God, he heard the voice of the poor, he heard the voice of the infirm and he heard the voice of nature. He made of them a way of life. My desire is that the seed that Saint Francis planted may grow in the hearts of many.” (Paragraph 48)
Murray Bodo, OFM in Surrounded by Love: Seven Teachings from Saint Francis of Assisi, quotes a prayer Pope Francis wrote for the 2018 World Communications Day:
“Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Help us to recognize the evil latent in a communication that does not build communion. Help us to remove the venom from our judgments. Help us to speak about others as our brothers and sisters. You are faithful and trustworthy; may our words be seeds of goodness for the world: where there is shouting, let us practice listening; where there is confusion, let us inspire harmony; where there is ambiguity, let us bring clarity; where there is exclusion, let us offer solidarity; where there is sensationalism, let us use sobriety; where there is superficiality, let us raise real questions; where there is prejudice, let us awaken trust; where there is hostility, let us bring respect; where there is falsehood, let us bring truth."
`The challenges of communication are not limited, of course, to our use of social media. If we want to build community, we must begin with those who are closest to us: our family, our friends, our co-workers, the people we live with. For those of us with access to social media, or even television sets and telephones for that matter, it can be a great temptation to spend a lot of time on our devices instead of spending quality time with those around us, or with God in prayer, or taking time to rest and relax. Balance is required. Perhaps this reflection can give us all pause for thought: how can I be a Franciscan presence, a peaceful presence, while utilizing modern communication? How can I be truly present and a witness to Gospel living to the people with whom I live and work on a daily basis as well as those I may meet on the Digital Continent?