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Fr Billy Swan

I was struck recently by Pope Francis’ message for ‘World Communications Day’ (16th May 2021) in which he said some very interesting and relevant things about communicating effectively by encountering people where and as they are. His teaching is timely now that we have returned to public worship after a five-month absence where real human interaction among us was severely curtailed. The Pope was speaking of course to all Catholic Christians but the wisdom of what he shares is accessible to everyone for it concerns the basic art of understanding someone else and making ourselves be understood as well. Therein lies the essence of good communication that leads in turn to peaceful relations and good friendships.

The Pope rightly celebrates the amazing power of the internet as a powerful tool of communication that shares information across the world and connects people around the globe. We have only to think of how important are platforms such as Facebook, WhattsApp, Telegram and Viber for keeping in touch with family members living abroad, especially at times like Christmas and Easter. When family members could not return home to Ireland during the recent lockdowns, modern digital communication was their lifeline to being connected and feeling connected to important family occasions like weddings and funerals. Now that the restrictions have eased, it seems clear that the use of this technology is here to stay. In the words of Pope Francis on the positive influence of the world wide web: ‘thanks to the internet, we have the opportunity to report what we see, what is taking place before our eyes and to share it with others’.

After acknowledging the gift of modern communication technology, Francis then proceeds to point out the limits of digital communication and how it can never be a substitute for face-to-face encounter. In his message he writes: ‘In communications, nothing can ever completely replace seeing things in person. Somethings can only be learned through first-hand experience. We do not communicate merely with words but with our eyes, the tone of our voice and our gestures’. In his earlier encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti’, the pope emphasised something similar when he said that ‘digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity’ (para. 43).

One example of the truth of these words is a couple who meet online. No matter how many times they communicate by digitally, on Zoom or video calls, nothing could or does replace the value of meeting face to face. Only when the couple meet face to face and spend time together can the real foundation of a relationship begin and trust start to grow. Unlike an online contact, in a face-to-face encounter can we can more accurately listen to the body language of the other, attune to the tone of their voice, look at the other person straight in the eye, listen carefully and speak clearly. Only with a real time encounter can we hope to know the other person better – for me to know them and they to know me.

To illustrate his point, the pope points to Jesus Himself who had no means of communication apart from his own voice and witness. Pointing to the Lord, Francis writes: ‘Jesus’ attractiveness to those who met him depended on the truth of his preaching; yet the effectiveness of what he said was inseparable from how he looked at others, from how he acted towards them and even from his silence. The disciples not only listened to his words; they watched him speak. Indeed, in him – the incarnate Word – the Word took on a face, the invisible God let himself be seen, heard and touched, as John himself tells us’ (cf. 1 John 1:1-3).

What all of this amounts to is the priority of real time encounter with other human beings. In modern Western culture, the danger exists of being so immersed in a virtual world that we lose touch with the real world going on around us. We might have hundreds of online friends but only a handful of real friends that we can meet and turn to when we need support. We have become so used to digital communication that we are losing the art of bodily communication and being present to another person without distractions and noise. And if we think that this is other people’s problem and not mine, then check how much screen time you have spent at the end of each week. I bet it’s far more than you realise. In fact, in a recent survey I read recently, the average person checks his/her phone on average 150 times a day.

If all our energies are invested in digital communication, we lose the art of looking at someone straight in the eye, speaking directly to them and listening – not just to their voice but to how they come across and present themselves to us. When this art is lost, there is less real conversation, less deep thinking, less listening, less understanding and less patience with others who might think differently and who challenge us.

There is also the problem of measuring our worth or the quality of our relationships via ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and ‘favourites’. This can lead us away from real time relationships and make us addicted to the feeling of acceptance and approval that comes with such a mindset. This can and does lead to isolation and depression.

So where does faith fit into this new world of communication? A few observations and suggestions.

First, a return to the real person of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified as Son of Man but risen as Son of God. As St Teresa of Avila once said, Jesus’ divinity is mediated through his sacred humanity – through his words, actions, gestures, life, suffering, cross and resurrection. As Pope Francis directs us, we need only to look intently and prayerfully on him to teach us, speak to us and inspire us. For all Christians, each of each are called to have a first hand experience of the Lord and to encounter him deeply and personally – to get to know Him and allow him to know us.

Second, to remind ourselves that modern communication technology is at the service of authentic humanity and the communication between us. Modern technology is a gift from God that helps us communicate in a way that builds up relations of trust that are based on truth and real encounters. Modern technology is meant to facilitate this and lead to face-to-face-dialogue and the building up of a faith community.

Thirdly, we need to be wary of social media and digital technology taking us away from encounters with real people. We need to commit ourselves to having regular contact with the ‘suffering flesh’ of real human beings and human situations. This sensitivity calls us out of our ‘buffered selves’ and away from endless hours before computer screens, smartphones and tablets. This is why many parents have banned mobile devices at meal-times in their homes and set a time limit for when their children can be online everyday. There comes a time to put away all distractions out of respect for the people with us at table; to be as present to them as we can be. There comes a time to fast – not just from food but from screen time.

Fourth, all of this has implications for our return to worship. During the lockdowns, the gift of modern technology came into its own by livestreaming services and Masses from Churches all over the diocese and the country. For many people, these broadcasts were a real lifeline at a time of darkness and fear. Now that public worship has resumed, the temptation might be to bypass being physically present for Sunday Mass and to settle for getting it online like we were used to for the past year or so. Hopefully, this article has already made the point that no amount of online coverage can replace a real time encounter with the faith community, not to mention the loss of receiving the Eucharist when one is not physically present to partake in the Mass.

Finally, as we return to Eucharist, let’s not be in such a hurry to leave. Slow down, Take the time to notice who is around us and next to us. Take the time to notice who are the people we have prayed with. We all need to increase our awareness that we are part of a community but also that we are responsible for that community as well. It is not just us as individuals that we will attract new members to our community but all of us together. The Church is a family. It is the Body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit and the people of God. It is the place where we meet each other, know each other and support each other as fellow disciples of Christ.

‘Come and see’ was the invitation of Jesus to his first disciples (cf. John 1:46). He invited them to see for themselves, to spend time with him and others, to listen, speak and grow. He looked at them straight in the eye and invited them to look at him and to know him. As we return to public worship in these weeks and build up the local faith community again, may we take the time to notice each other and never to be distracted from noticing Christ present in the least of his brothers and sisters (cf. Matt. 25:32ff). I leave you with this thought. In the story of the rich man who walked past the poor Lazarus every day (Luke 16:19-31), there were many things that distracted him from looking at his poor neighbour straight in the eye. Perhaps if he had caught his eye, he might have noticed his plight and responded.


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