by Fr David Stewart SJ
Pope Francis is renowned for breaking new ground, in so many ways. He encourages all of us to ‘go to the frontiers’. He goes there too; in his preaching and teaching, in his travelling, remarkable for an octogenarian, but also in the topics that he raises. He wants the light of the Gospel to shine on so many varied areas of human experience. He reminds us that it must. This month’s Universal Intention is a great example: he invites the whole people of God, indeed all people of good will, to pray with him that ‘social networks may work towards that inclusiveness which respects others for their differences’.
The careful wording of this month’s Intention is subtly telling. Put plainly, it’s a reminder that social networks currently are neither working towards inclusiveness nor respecting others for their differences! It’s not the networks’ fault, but those of us who use them; or, often enough, misuse them. Since the internet came into general use under two decades ago, followed by the rapid spread of interactive social media, the so-called Web 2.0, even more recently, dismay has grown about how quickly it began to be misused.
There were high hopes for a communication revolution that would lead to more dialogue. That was a wonderful ideal but, sadly, we have come to see the opposite happen all too often. Many of us have used the easy connectivity of the internet, and the widespread availability of a variety of social media platforms, to do harm to others, attacking those who think differently from us or who simply are different.
Online, you can be anonymous. You can pretend to be someone else; you can create an entirely fake persona for yourself. You can hide behind this to degrade or attack others. More sadly, you can spend your entire online time in the digital company of like-minded people, in your own ‘silo’, potentially never hearing a different viewpoint or having your own opinions challenged or tested. And when that happens, our opinions solidify and turn into prejudices; we will have become online bigots. A prejudiced bigot is someone who refuses to respect others for their differences: exactly the opposite of what we pray for with the Pope this month!
The internet was meant to bring freedom of communication and dialogue. ‘This is for everyone’, its inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, famously pronounced. A recent alarming example of misuse of that freedom followed the horrifying gun massacre in a US school in February this year. The students, still only teenagers, who had seen their classmates and friends massacred by the gunman, decided that enough was enough and began to campaign to tighten gun laws. Their articulate actions continue to win widespread praise and admiration, yet they suffered online attacks, casting doubts on their authenticity and honesty. These young people had just been shot at by a deranged gunman yet here were they under vicious attack again, online, for daring to speak out.
The Pope’s Prayer Intention invites us to an examination of conscience with respect to its topic each month. It prompts us to ask about where this month’s concern might connect with something in our own experience and asks us how we might respond. As we make our Daily Offering, we unite it to that intention and, this month, that will lead us to reflect on our personal use of social networks. Do we use them to build up others, for dialogue, for the greater common good? Or do we succumb to temptation to be exclusive, interacting only with like-minded others, refusing to respect difference and diversity? Our God-given human freedom is delicate and tender. We can prayerfully commit ourselves to its protection, especially online, this month.
We, in the Prayer Network, have been reviving the valuable old Apostleship of Prayer custom, of many years’ standing, of offering three challenges for the month. These are concrete ways in which we can take our Morning Offering prayer and the Pope’s Monthly Intention and put them into action, for the challenges that face humanity and the mission of the Church. Here are three Challenges for you, from this month’s Intention:
• Observe how people interact on social networks, what arguments and discussions are most popular and what concerns they reveal. Do you find inclusiveness and respect for difference?
• Seek, in our own use of them, always, a positive and constructive attitude in social networks, sharing content that promotes solidarity and respect, truth and good reflection, actively resisting any temptation to degrade anyone else, especially if they disagree with me.
• Take time to discover good projects of evangelisation in social networks and also try to bring the voice of the Church and its proposals to these spaces.
We might also keep in mind that June is traditionally the month of the Heart of Christ. In many places the faithful will pray the Novena to the Sacred Heart, in our churches or at home in their own prayer-time. It would be wonderful if we could unite the Pope’s Intention for the month to our contemplation of the Heart of Christ, for those challenges that face us all are on the heart of the Trinity, too!
Examination of conscience: for your own or your group’s reflection: Be still, and ask the Holy Spirit to bring you to an interior place of prayer. Ask yourself if you’ve used the Internet as a means of encounter with Jesus or of announcing him to others. Do you always work towards inclusiveness, respecting others for their difference? Ask in your prayer to experience that encounter and to know that joy. Recognise the grace of repentance if you’ve not used it well. Then ponder the role that the joy of the heart of Christ has played in your Christian life. Is it visible to others?
Morning Offering, or Daily Prayer for this month:
God our Father,
You have given your children the ability and creativity
to make this world a place of communion.
Today it is easy to be united with people from so different places and cultures.
Help us to take advantage of the possibilities of human ingenuity
to build a world more in solidarity, closer to each other’s struggles,
a world capable of accepting differences and where justice, peace and truth reign.
Give us your Spirit, so that each of us may do our own small part
in promoting the good use of social media.
Our Father … Hail, Mary … Glory Be …
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus – Have mercy on us.