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Digital Culture & Catechesis
by Jonathan F. Sullivan
Opportunities and challenges


The task of inculturation seeks to discover that which is good, beautiful, and true in the cultures in which the Church finds herself in order to illuminate those cultures with the light of the Gospel. (See General Directory for Catechesis, 21). The great Christian missionaries, such as St. Paul and St. Francis Xavier, used elements of the societies they evangelized—their language, customs, and traditions—to help their hearers understand and accept the Gospel.


While we often consider inculturation in the context of national and ethnic cultures, the same task of discerning the positive and negative in a given culture is also necessary when encountering the emerging digital culture found in the myriad ways people work, interact, and play online. As digital culture spans across the world and touches so many people, it has deep implications for the work of evangelization and catechesis. (Note: Roughly 50 percent of the world’s population has some Internet access, reports InternetWorldStats.com. IDC Research reports that for many, connectivity is exclusively through mobile devices.)


Preferential Option for the New
If the digital culture can be said to have a foundational belief, it is that “new is better.” Every year we see consumers scrambling for the newest phone, video game console, or tablet. Software companies push the newest version of their products, adding new and improved features (many of which the average user will never touch). Users experiment with, embrace, and then abandon new mobile and social media services in a cycle that takes a matter of months or years.


This is partly due to the relative youth of the Internet. The widespread availability of digital technologies is a recent phenomenon, and we are still working out how to use these tools in our lives and in our work. But it is also true that the human brain seems to be wired for “newness” and seeks out new experiences and information, making the constant stream of new devices, new notifications, and new connections extremely seductive.


For a Church based on millennia of sacred writings and tradition, this preference for the new can pose some challenges. How do we make the case for ancient beliefs in an age focused on the “latest and greatest?”


St. John Paul II challenged the Church to make our evangelization and catechesis new in ardor, method, and expression. Put simply, this means cultivating a renewed energy and zeal for our work as catechists; finding new ways to form people as disciples (for instance, through those same new technologies); and translating the language of faith in such a way as to make it comprehensible to people unaccustomed to Christian stories and symbols. By reinvigorating the work of catechesis in this way, we can be like the homeowner who takes from the storehouse both what is old and what is new (see Matthew 13:52), making our teaching fresh in this new age.


Dissolution of Geographical Boundaries
Sherry Turkle, psychologist and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describes technology’s tendency to overcome the “tyranny of geography.” In the past, our ability to form relationships was limited to where we lived. We had to make allowances for differences between individuals in order to live in community together: Even if I disagreed with my neighbor, I still had to live next to him. (Failure to do so has led to great social and political strife.) Online, however, there is no geography. A person living on another continent is just as close as someone down the street.


Overcoming the tyranny of geography carries some wonderful benefits. It is easier than ever to find people with similar interests and share, communicate, and learn with them. This accounts for the proliferation of websites catering to very small, niche interests such as fan sites for obscure films or online support groups for rare diseases.


These tools have also given rise to the ability to inhabit multiple simultaneous realities—one in the real world and others online. We can now be both at the playground, watching our children play, and in an online chat room communicating with a friend. We call this “efficiency,” but it also keeps us from fully engaging with either the real world before us or the digital one. Our attention is split, and we can wind up being neither “here nor there.”


The good news for faith formation is that it is easier than ever to connect, share, and build community with catechists and evangelists from around the world through services such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. On the other hand, because we can surround ourselves with online friends who share our interests and beliefs, it is easier for those we catechize (and us) to ignore both their neighbors and the challenge of loving them. This points to the need to be more intentional in integrating service and the works of mercy into our formation programs if we are to model the radical faith of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:25-37).


Access of Information
Just a few decades ago, the means to access and share information was limited by physical media. If a local library or bookstore didn’t carry a particular book, you might have to wait weeks to get it via an interlibrary loan. If a video rental store (remember those?) didn’t carry a certain movie, you didn’t watch it. News could take weeks or months to travel across the world.


Today, information—in the form of digital files—is accessible 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from virtually any location. Digital books can be downloaded in minutes. Streaming services make every movie ever made available with a few mouse clicks. We watch news unfold in real time in cities on the other side of the world.


This easy access to information is helping us rethink the school-based model many parishes utilize in the formation of youth. This model may have had a place when it was harder to share information—when books were expensive and didn’t fit on a device that fits in our pockets. Today, however, ancient texts and medieval commentaries are just a few mouse clicks away—to say nothing about tools like the USCCB’s online Catechism, Catholic podcasts sharing reflections on Church teaching, and papal tweets.


Today the problem is not so much getting information to youth as it is helping them find the right information from trusted sources and then forming their lives according to Jesus’ invitation to discipleship. In one popular phrase, catechists are no longer called to be a “sage on the stage,” but a “guide on the side.” In this new model, our focus as catechists is not merely to be content experts who have memorized all of the Catechism and Bible, but faithful Christians who help guide youth and adults through an authentic witness. Holiness, after all, cannot be learned from a Wikipedia page.


The new digital culture offers opportunities and challenges for the preaching of the Gospel. As with other cultures, we must discern the helpful from the harmful, and adopt the attitude of the saints who evangelized new lands and people, even as we set a course for the “digital continent.”

DIGITAL CULTURE RESOURCES FOR CATECHISTS  


Recommended reading detailing shifts in technology and its impact:
Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live, by Jeff Jarvis (Simon & Schuster, 2011), a journalism professor at City University of New York and a media consultant. His book makes a case for positive aspects of digital culture.


Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, by Douglas Rushko, is a title that has been around for years. Rushko, a professor of media studies at Queens College, New York, offers cautions against unexamined adoption of all things digital.


Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, by Sherry Turkle (Basic Books, 2012), is a good introduction to how people interact both online and with new “social robots.” revealing some startling trends about evolving notions of the self.


Infinite Bandwidth: Encountering Christ in the Media, by Eugene Gan (Emmaus Road, 2010), and Connected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age, by Daniella Zsupan-Jerome (Michael Glazier, 2014), offer readers overviews of Church documents concerning social communication and media.


The Parish Guide to Social Media, by Clarissa Valbuena Aljentera (Twenty-Third Publications, 2013), describes how social media can build community, promote evangelization, and recharge ministries.


The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet, edited by Brandon Vogt (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011), remains an impressive introduction to various Catholics involved in digital media.


Catechesis in a Multi-Media World: Connecting to Today’s Students, by Mary Byrne Hoffmann (Paulist Press, 2011), is for catechists looking to introduce digital tools and media into their formation programs.


Examples of how digital media can be applied to the Church’s apostolates:
Bishop Robert Barron’s videos on Catholic teaching are at WordOnFire.org or YouTube.com/user/wordonfirevideo.


Lisa Hendey’s site for Catholic moms is found at CatholicMom.com.


Trideo/SQPN offers podcasts related to pop culture and more at Trideo.com.


Blogging Catechists and Catechetical Leaders:
Sr. Caroline Cerveny, SSJ-TOSF, DMin, at ACyberPilgrim.org


Jared Dees, M.Ed, MA, at TheReligionTeacher.com


Lisa Mladinich, and others, at AmazingCatechists.com


Joe Paprocki, DMin, at CatechistsJourney.com


Jonathan F. Sullivan serves as executive director of evangelization, education, and worship for the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana. He blogs on evangelization and catechesis at JonathanFSullivan.com.


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