Social media and fostering authentic community

Each year, Pope Francis customarily releases his annual World Communications Day message on Jan. 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists. As a Catholic journalist for more than 25 years now, I’m interested in how the pope’s words apply to those who work as professional Catholic communicators. But his message always includes themes on which every Catholic should reflect.

By Joe Towalski

This year’s message is titled “‘We are members one of another’ (Eph 4:25): From social network communities to the human community.” The “members one of another” phrase from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians reminds us that, through our baptism, we are all members of the body of Christ. It is a membership rooted in truth, communion, love and concern for others.

In this context, the “net” and social media become valuable communications resources, if they are used properly: to foster healthy personal relationships, share knowledge, build community and nurture a sense of solidarity among people.

But they aren’t substitutes for face-to-face relationships or participation in society on a personal level. We don’t build community simply by increasing our followers on Instagram. In fact, the internet and social media can become a realm in which we feel more alone and isolated from others, particularly if these media are the predominant way we communicate with others or if they are used to spread disinformation, divide and demean people. The document notes that one in four young people “is involved in episodes of cyberbullying” and that an International Observatory for Cyberbullying Prevention will be established with its headquarters in the Vatican.

Pope Francis wants us to understand that the “net,” social media and social network communities aren’t inherently good or bad. It depends on how we use them.

For me, this paragraph near the end of his message sums it up best:

“The image of the body and the members reminds us that the use of the social web is complementary to an encounter in the flesh that comes alive through the body, heart, eyes, gaze, breath of the other. If the Net is used as an extension or expectation of such an encounter, then the network concept is not betrayed and remains a resource for communion. If a family uses the Net to be more connected, to then meet at table and look into each other’s eyes, then it is a resource. If a Church community coordinates its activity through the network, and then celebrates the Eucharist together, then it is a resource. If the Net becomes an opportunity to share stories and experiences of beauty or suffering that are physically distant from us, in order to pray together and together seek out the good to rediscover what unites us, then it is a resource.”

Take some time this month to reflect on how you and your family use the internet and social media. What is working well? What needs more work and attention?

May St. Francis de Sales intercede on our behalf, always guiding our communications with one another — in person and online — for the benefit of all.

Author: Joe Towalski

Joe Towalski is the editor for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.

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