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Attitudes to the internet have gone topsy-turvy. Trendy lifestyle gurus are advising people to slow down and switch off, to distance themselves from the overwhelming 24-7 world of social media. But this week the Church effectively told Catholics to speed up and plug in. When did the Church join the vanguard of the new media revolution?
“Let us boldly become citizens of the digital world,” exhorts Pope Francis in his message for World Communications Day that was released yesterday. Rapid progress in social technology represent a “great and thrilling challenge,” he adds, and the drawbacks – knee-jerk responses, trolling – do not justify its rejection. Meanwhile the bishop responsible for the Church’s work on mental health in England and Wales, Bishop Richard Moth, has suggested that people send “an uplifting message” via social media to combat January blues. What both the Pope and Bishop Moth have sensed is critically important: that friendships cultivated over screens are just as valid as those cultivated face-to-face.
Silicon Valley’s rediscovery of spirituality has helped. Researching a story for this week’s Tablet I came across Wisdom 2.0 – a conference in February in California about using technology wisely. Speakers are due to include Google execs, Facebook moguls, a Benedictine monk and Zen masters. It’s hugely reassuring to discover that the people who create social media want us to use them “mindfully” and are actively trying to make that easier. In one intriguing video from last year’s conference called “Harnessing Technology to Increase Understanding and Compassion”, a Facebook designer explained that changing the status prompt on users’ homepages from “what’s happening?” to “how are you feeling?” some years ago was a deliberate attempt to bring people back to themselves when they were using the site.
Sometimes “how are you feeling” is a lifeline: an old friend with depression occasionally posts a number as her Facebook status that reflects the severity of her illness. When she can barely put a sentence together, her closest friends on Facebook know “7” is time to call, and “10” is an emergency. Social media keeps friendships together over great distances and the proliferation of platforms – everybody needs at least a Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter account – is a great thing. For those who find it hard to communicate, say, feelings of loneliness through words, image-led platforms, like Instagram, can be a way in. The breath-taking pictures my friend “pins” to the “Soul” board on her Pinterest – a wolf howling, or by contrast, two horses nuzzling – tells me things about her that she might not want to share during a catch-up over dinner in a crowded restaurant.
In this week’s Tablet Fr Daniel O’Leary warns that our engagement with social media “carries a compulsive fear of being left out” that leads to mental health problems. He says our online persona is idealised and unreal. On the contrary. Social media brings me closer to people I know the best, whether their lives are ideal or far from it. The Church is right to encourage Catholics to get stuck in.
Liz Dodd is a news reporter at The Tablet