Saint Mary's College conference explores faith in the digital age
By Lou Fancher
The travel path of "Good News" coming to one billion Catholics and people all over the world through social media is "something truly good, a gift from God," according to Pope Francis.
In an excerpt from a "48th World Communications Day" message delivered in January 2014 that was later made public, the Pope embraced the Internet as a 21st century tool for evangelism and more.
Numerous webchats, more than 13 million Twitter followers (as of early 2014) a February 2014 personal, iPhone-delivered video and appearances captured and shared on mobile devices solidify Pope Francis as a leader in the advent of Catholic social media.
Recognizing the Internet's dominion over contemporary society, a weeklong conference at Saint Mary's College sponsored by the college's Cummins Institute brings together experts, scholars, educators, religious and lay partners June 8-12.
A keynote presentation by the Rev. Anthony Gittins, professor emeritus at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and workshops by Loyola University educator and author Daniella Zsupan-Jerome and Saint Mary's communication professor Ed Tywoniak highlight the Global Reality of the Church in the Digital Age.
Cummins director and history professor Brother Charles Hilken says the conference will explore the advantages and perils of digital stewardship.
"Open dialogue demands a new sense of personal authority. There are now more than official and rehearsed statements on matters of faith and morals, but also exchanges that demand church people speak with authenticity on questions that matter, especially to the young," Hilken says.
Like the standardized typeset books and publications made possible by the printing press in the 17th century, the social media platform is driving the Church's missionary efforts in unprecedented ways.
While promoting beauty, goodness, and truth in communication -- the messages encouraged by Pope Francis -- Hilken says he's pleasantly surprised by top leadership's charge into the future.
"Pope Francis (and others) are making connections to and exploring the meaning of the cutting-edge technologies used by young people and thereby dragging the rest of us into the new age of digital social media."
Tywoniak directs the college's Digital Studies Laboratory and says the Internet has altered how people think about time and space.
"The message is now instantaneous and everywhere," Tywoniak says. "But it's still the message that's critical, not the medium. We're behind the times, but at the same time, migrating the Church's message to social media isn't as necessary as personal intercommunication."
And playing "catch-up" demands that the Church not lose the face-to-face encounters, he insists.
"We do Facebook for no other reason than that it's there," he says. "Social media may be a good first push, but it won't engage people in any meaningful ways beyond a sound bite."
Tywoniak says Pope Francis' message "swept the world" due to its content, not its technology. Articulating a papal position on poverty may have been standard, but when Pope Francis tweeted on global warming, birth control and sexual preference, Tywoniak says the Pope has used the Internet's power to address "watershed topics."
"Social media can shift the world's perspective" Tywoniak insists. "It's not just about conversion, it's about how the Church can make a difference. Pope Francis is using social media and showing how he can influence societal views."