Salt + Light Media Home
Salt + Light Media Home

Towards Full Presence: Weavers of Communion

Matthew Neugebauer

Thursday, June 22, 2023

Image Courtesy of the Dicastery for Communication.
In my previous post on Towards Full Presence, the recent reflection from the Dicastery for Communication, I finished by mentioning that this week I’ll look at the way it addresses social media influencers and all the baptized as pastoral leaders in the digital space.
Following Chapter Two of Fratelli Tutti, the reflection takes up the parable of the Good Samaritan as its guide to pastoral reflection. It’s an apt choice, since vitriolic, divisive behaviour has given social media a reputation for leaving people feeling wounded and robbed on the side of the road. (#18) I also found the use of the parable to be a moving way of expressing the pastoral opportunities that open up in the great “access leveler” of social media. Just before beginning the parable, the lawyer asks Jesus, “who is my neighbour?” (Luke 10:29) In a world where anyone can connect with anyone, we can clearly see the truth of Jesus' reply that we are all each other’s neighbours. (#6)
But first, a shocking twist: “Jesus does not put the lawyer in the shoes of the Samaritan, but in the shoes of the wounded man. To find out who his neighbour is, he must first understand that he is in the shoes of the wounded man and that another has had compassion on him.” (#70) The implication is that God is the Good Samaritan, who is tender, close, and compassionate to us wherever we are, wherever we live. For a large number of people, especially in the west, our lives are lived not simply “in-person” or “online,” but “onlife,” where our in-person and digital presence in the world is deeply integrated. (#9) So God is present in that onlife reality, and it’s where God leads His pastors and His Church in the way of solidarity and love. If Christ is online, then His Mystical Body will follow.

Macro- and Micro-Influencers

As real places of relationship and ministry, online communities are therefore places where clergy and other ministers are called – and expected – to lead. This leadership may exist alongside, as extensions of, or well beyond their leadership of a flesh-and-blood parish, in their brick-and-mortar parish church. Whatever the scope, the vocation to pastoral leadership in digital spaces is as real, and takes the same level of personal sensitivity, theological reflection, and missional creativity, as more traditional parish ministry. It's no accident that many influencers are priests like Fr. Mike Schmitz or religious like Sr. Orianne Pietra René.
The reflection briefly singles out the existence of social media influencers as we conventionally understand them, those whose popularity and quality of content and engagement thrusts them well beyond their local community. It defines influencers as ”individuals who gain and maintain a large following, who acquire greater visibility and are able to inspire and motivate others with their ideas or experiences.” (#72) They may not even have a formal leadership role at the parish level: again, social media ministry is a vocation in itself.
The need for “digital ministers” to possess the same sensitivity, creativity, and theological literacy as parish priests and pastoral associates seems like one of those things that wasn’t so obvious at first, but now can’t be unseen. Towards Full Presence serves to remind us that the pitfalls of celebrity and the opportunities of new and accessible connections both exist online, perhaps to a greater degree than they do in the local, in-person communities. Indeed, the heart of the reflection is a solemn exhortation to keep at the front and centre of our minds the inviolable truth that everyone we interact with online is a flesh-and-blood person, fully loved by God and made in His image. (#47, 75)
Following the logic of this reminder of God’s love for all, the reflection makes a critical assertion about the breadth of the digital vocation. I’ll quote at length:
There are not only macro-influencers with a large audience, but also micro-influencers. Every follower of Christ has the potential to establish a link, not to himself or herself, but to the Kingdom of God, even for the smallest circle of his or her relationships….The challenges that we face are global and thus require a global collaborative effort. It is urgent then to learn to act together, as a community and not as individuals. Not so much as “individual influencers,” but as “weavers of communion”: pooling our talents and skills, sharing knowledge and contributions. It might be useful, therefore, that individual initiatives on social media, especially those that originate with religious and clergy, find a way to enhance communion in the Church. As a Christian community, it might be helpful as well to reach out to the “influencers” that are at the margins of our ecclesial environments. (#74, 76, fn 48, emphasis added)

Persons and Communities

Before I get to what I appreciate about the reflection’s comments about influencers and digital vocations, I’ll raise what I think are some limitations. The considerable impact that “macro-influencers'' have among young Catholics in the west means their situation deserves more comment. This could take the form of a supplementary document with "in-house" guidance on how their unique situation might better serve the mission and ministry of the Church, as well as how everyday Catholics can more meaningfully engage with them.
Also, the emphasis on community seems to downplay the place of one-on-one onlife relationships as a part of social media’s community-building capacity. For example, I think of friendships that frequently rely on instant messaging and sharing images, or the complex but now widely accepted world of online dating. Those are now important experiences for many, and therefore require a pastoral response.
The effect of downplaying macro-influencers and one-on-one relationships is that on the surface, the reflection seems to communicate an underlying moral theology that opposes the  "personal" and "communal.” This idea is expressed, for example, in the statement that our digital engagement ought to “move from…relationship to community” (#55, emphasis added). Do we move on from relationships to communities?
However, the way the reflection ultimately relates personal and communal emerges from its greatest strengths. That seeming distinction between personal and communal is, in part, a side-effect of the reflection’s vital note of caution about the commodifying and privatizing power of digital technology. (#13) Most importantly, Towards Full Presence stands in the vibrant current of Church teaching that sees the real distinction in the conception of the human being as the one between the "individual" and the "personal." Individualism is an ideology at odds with the Church's communal and relational conception of the human being: I stand apart, and so do my needs and interests. Personalism, such as that of St. John Paul II, is the assertion of human dignity and agency that is fundamentally bound to our relational identity: one-on-one personal relationships are rooted in, formed by, and help form communities after all. I am a part of a greater whole, and so are my needs and desires.
I’ll explain what I mean about the way relationships are rooted in and form communities, and then go into the way the reflection expresses this connection between personal and communal.
The examples of one-to-one digital relationships I raised above are personal experiences that call us to communal rather than individualist choices, even as some aspects of those relationships are necessarily private – including the use of private messaging apps. These meaningful onlife relationships such as friendships and (successful!) online dating experiences touch on fundamental ways that people have always connected with each other, ways we become a part of each other’s lives. As the Parable of the Good Samaritan shows us, our basic, common humanity is expressed most truthfully by the care and love we show to others and (remember the plot twist!) our open vulnerability to receiving the care and love of others. (#70) Again, in our deeply connected onlife world, everyone and anyone can be our neighbour, and we can be a neighbour to anyone.
This means that those who pursue friendships and dating relationships onlife are called to reflect God’s closeness, tenderness, and compassion to each other. (#64) This vocation, like every vocation, requires the people involved to be formed by Church teaching about the importance of community support and accountability, and more importantly requires them to be faithful to the ecclesial practice of support and accountability.

Weavers of Communion

The spotlight on the pastoral efficacy of "micro-influencers" is itself the main breakthrough that expresses our personal interactions online as a part of our digital communities, since it calls us to express that basic, common humanity in the grace-filled community of the Church. To repeat part of the quote above, the reflection calls on all the faithful “to act together, as a community and not as individuals. Not so much as ‘individual influencers,’ but as ‘weavers of communion:’ pooling our talents and skills, sharing knowledge and contributions.” (#76)
This call to be micro-influencers resonates deeply with the focus placed on the "ministry of all the baptized" in the Synod on Synodality’s core themes of communion, participation, and mission. The subsequent footnote sounds like it would fit well in a Synod document: “It might be useful, therefore, that individual initiatives on social media, especially those that originate with religious and clergy, find a way to enhance communion in the Church.” (fn 48) Indeed, the newly-released Instrumentum Laboris singles out the “digital environment” as a place where all the baptized can participate in inculturated mission. (Synod on Synodality, Instrumentum Laboris #60)
It's no accident that Towards Full Presence uses the term "synodal" to describe the way we are to build relationships and communities in our digital spaces, and does so immediately after calling us to be “weavers of communion.” Synodality is the way the Good Samaritan comes alongside the man on the road, and walks with him to healing: we build communion as Christ walks with us and we walk together. We can have the courage to participate in mission by building relationships with our fellow labourers in the digital vineyard, walking alongside them into digital spaces, just as Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to walk from town to town. (#76, referencing Mark 6:7)
This reflection is really about everyday folks, especially younger Catholics in the secular West, who are free to express their views online, free to relate and connect online, at church and social organizations, free to be onlife. They are free – and called – to take part in the Spirit's work of sanctifying the world through God's style of "closeness, tenderness, compassion" (#64) You don't need a high follower count to reach out and help build communities of people online. You need an internet connection, a well-formed conscience, and a willingness to “be a balm that relieves pain and a fine wine that gladdens hearts.” (Closing prayer, quoting Pope Francis’ Message for the 48th World Communications Day.)

Related Articles:


Receive our newsletters
Stay Connected
Receive our newsletters
Stay Connected
Copyright © 2024 Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
Registered Charity # 88523 6000 RR0001