Pope Thoughtfully Explores Social Media: My Non-Expert Take

My desk this morning!

My desk this morning: the Pope and Social Media!

On Dec. 12, 2012 (the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe), Pope Benedict sent his first tweet. How appropriate then, is the theme of his message for the 2013 World Communications Day: social media! Titled Social Networks: portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelization, the Message is a thoughtful exploration of social media—especially the opportunities they offer to build human relationships.

Over the years, I have found these Messages for World Communications Days gems for understanding the gifts that the media are to humanity, as well as helpful tools for using them responsibly, ethically, and as a means for evangelization.

In a particular way I welcome the Pope’s message this year, as I am no expert in social media. In fact, due to a lack of time, I still use social media in a very limited way. (Perhaps I will juggle my priorities so I can make more time in the future!) My friends know that I’m not often on Facebook: right now, I use it to announce events and encourage young women discerning their vocations, and not for much else. Up till now, my Twitter account (SisterMPaul) is limited to notifying followers when I’ve posted here on my blog. I’d like to be online more, and I’m putting together some great resources for the web pages I’m currently developing that are specifically focused for readers of my books (or those who use the See Yourself Through God’s Eyes app).  Social networks allow people to connect, share common interests, and develop relationships—both digitally and in “real” physical space.

Pope Benedict’s thoughtful appraisal of the characteristics of social media really resonates with me, helping me to discern how I can more effectively use the strengths of social media, and what to take special note of so that the limitations don’t damage the quality of my online communication and relationships. In his Message, he comments on:

  • Conditions that foster the best of social media: where dialogue and debate thrive
  • The aspirations of the human heart that drive social networks
  • Challenges that the culture of social networks offers to communicators
  • The understanding and language of social media (briefly)
  • Evangelization and social media: suggestions for communicating faith, and the faith that we need to nurture as communicators

Pope Benedict’s last couple of messages clearly show how the Church has come to understand social media as a public space in which the Church needs to have a wise, inclusive, and dialogical presence. This year’s Message calls social media a new “agora.”  Like all media, social media are both a product of human activity and an influence that shapes human activity; in a specific way, social media directly connect to human interactions and relationships.

 * * *

I want to highlight two points which resonate with me in timeliness and my own approach to media. First, in speaking about the “new language” of social media, Pope Benedict says:

Effective communication, as in the parables of Jesus, must involve the imagination and affectivity of those we wish to invite to an encounter with the mystery of God’s love – Message for the 47th World Communications Day

In this postmodern, post-Christian era, engaging the imagination and emotions of those with whom we communicate is an absolute necessity. Storytelling has become essential not just in retaining attention, but in truly engaging people’s attention in the first place. Stories appeal to our hearts and minds–a very holistic approach encouraged by media apostle and Pauline Family Founder, Bl. James Alberione. When stories are exceptionally well-told:

  1. they engage our emotions by drawing us into the situation of the character, hopefully to the point that we are able to identify with their experience.
  2. they engage our minds as we ponder the meaning of events that unfold (God is in the plot, rather than as one character)

A new book entitled, Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence offers scientific evidence that stories respond to the ways our brain works. Author Lisa Cron develops this point by point, helping writers craft stories that, from beginning to end, will engage those who are listening, watching, or reading. This book is on my list to read, but as a developing feature screenwriter, as a public speaker and author of books on spirituality, I discovered years ago that stories are essential if I want to effectively communicate with others. This is not a new principle—Jesus takes advantage of this—but in recent years both my own experience and religious communicators like Pierre Babin have helped me appreciate much more how absolutely essential it is to tell stories if we want to be effective communicators today.

The second point I wish to reflect on in this Message is that, no matter how new are the media with which we engage, what is “behind” them is always the same: the human heart.

The basic human desire to love and be loved, and to find meaning and truth—a desire which God himself has placed in the heart of every man and woman—keeps our contemporaries ever open to what Blessed Cardinal Newman called the “kindly light” of faith. – Message for the 47th World Communications Day

The human heart is always the same…and while the technology might change and develop (even at astonishing speeds), the needs that we seek to fulfill, whether in person or digitally, are the same. What this means for me as a communicator is that I want to strive for authenticity, the best of my humanity, and the deepest of faith in all of my communication and relationships. Love—specifically God’s saving love manifested in Christ—is always what we are called to point towards!

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