P. Franco Lever and P. Fabio Pasqualetti SDB,
Professors of the Faculty of Sciences of Social Communication
at the Salesian Pontifical University (Rome)
Media, Internet, Communication
and Trappist Silence
In a paper given to the General Chapter of the Cistercians the authors reflect on the part played by the internet in the life and vocation of monastic communities, and on the difficulties experienced in monastic life by young people who live in a world dominated by electronic devices.
We would like to begin our work encounter by extending our thanks to you and your General Abbot, Dom Eamon Fitzgerald, for ask-ing us to collaborate within your chapter. We, who are working in the world, we think of you Trappists as Moses on the mountain praying for his people; this is why your invitation is as a gift of fellowship. The topic on the agenda is a true challenge; the questions given to us touch on arguments that are in part unexplored. We have not come here with solutions, so to say ‘turnkeys’; we will try to collaborate with your chapter work in identifying guidelines for your use of the network.
The network: what is it? From the viewpoint of technology
A network links technologies together that work with a digital code and can span through all the continents. It consists of cables (airborne and underwater), of radio links, satellites, of amplification stations and routing… Each of the nodes of this huge network is active: it can be a server, a memory unit, an organization, a computer, a person with a smartphone, as well as other types of machines operated by programs... and are all potentially in shared contact, even though if one is on the move. The message - word, text, image, video, sequence of commands…- are encoded in digital form and are organized in packages containing the address to which they are intended and the information to correct any errors. Each signal travels at the speed of 300,000 kilometers per second (just a second to travel around the world almost 8 times), cancelling every distance and simultaneous synchronizing. All present, all at the same time. All this technology has advanced some 40 years ago, and has ‘exploded’ in the last twenty years, thus we are only at the beginning of a technological evolution of which boundaries need yet definition.
From the viewpoint of communication
It is truly indeed a ‘communication revolution’ analogous to what happened in human history at a few other times: When writing as a means of communication was widespread; we had the invention of printing, the adoption of electronic media. Authors such as Eric Havelock, Harold Innis, Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan have helped us to understand that changes in the level of communication always result in equally strong changes in the culture and the organization of society. In particular, they highlighted how writing had not only changed the structure of a society, but also its culture, its way of perceiving reality, its forms of expression. So in the case of the printing press it was evident as it was purposeful at the birth and the development of Protestantism (and later Enlightenment) the adoption of a communication system that gives an individual direct access to knowledge of the texts (of biblical texts, in particular), without any further mediation, thus overcoming the obstacle of the Latin language. What happened in the past helps us to understand (or to speculate!) what are the most significant consequences of a revolution that is bringing together in a single language (digital) all previous languages, by strengthening them beyond all measure and putting it in the hands of every single node in the network, machine or human subject.
The communication process
In our current environment it is even more clear that the concept of a linear process of communication is not adequate: there is no active subject (the sender) and a passive subject (the receiver), because in reality, the message does not flow from the sender to the receiver, but is the product of both subjects’ activities. The network has made it even more clear that the individual subject is active, and is the decisive part for a message to be received. The individual is not only a user of messages in the network, is the author and publisher of himself: blog, twitter, etc.
The way in which we form interest groups, collaborations, friendships is also changing. The place where you live, the environment in which you work, the groups to which you belong does not affect the construction of new relationships and is not limited, thus certainly changing the role of the authorities.
Anyone on the network can voice an opinion and those who hear him/her does not depend on one’s authority: the role of a hierarchical network is not a replica of what is lived off line. In the 90’s many authors highlighted how the networks were changing the role of authority in all organizations. For example, in 1998, Esther Dyson, former Wall Street analyst, a celebrated theorist and author prophesied, ‘It is going to shake up every established authority in the world, including the Catholic Church.’ Today, especially based on research conducted in the field, it is far less radical, because organizations are learning to adapt to new forms of communication. For example Knut Lundby, a professor at the University of Oslo, highlights the trend but much less in absolute terms, ‘The Net helps to bypass old authorities, and to give rise to new ones.’ In particular, he cites the ability of the Catholic Church as an active organization in the network, without questioning the authority as a point of reference.
The digital system makes available to us a plurality of languages (word, text, music, image, video) to communicate not only with each single instrument, but also all together as in an ‘orchestra’ (multimedia forms). Nevertheless, a language is not just an instrument to say something; it is rather an instrument for exploration of reality. What I know with regards to music, is not exactly what I can know by sight, by touch, with dancing. By having more languages, we can explore newer forms of reality, we can explore the human/religious experience, for a deeper understanding of our relationship with God. Our task is not to repeat the formulation of contents made by those who preceded us, but we need first to re-experience the relationship with God, only then we will be able to give it a new forms of a fascinating and credible expression.
The network is everywhere, very widespread, and will persist. The 2014 Global Digital Statistics.
2.5 billion people are online (by the end of 2014, there will be almost 3 billion Internet users, two-thirds of them coming from the developing world).
6.5 billion mobile subscriptions globally.
1.8 billion are on social networks - top social networks added 135 million users in 2013.
Facebook now has 1.184 billion users.
Positive reception by the Church and the Christian community
The Catholic Church expressed its favorable view concerning the network already in 1990, in the message of Pope John Paul II for the World Social Communications Day: With the advent of computer telecommunications and what are known as computer participation systems, the Church is offered further means for fulfilling her mission. For this reason, the American researcher Heidi Campbell says, ‘The Catholic Church was arguably the first religious institution to embrace the internet, establish a web site, and develop an official policy regarding internet use for members of its community.’ Thanks to Vatican Council II (1962-1965), the Church has gained a new sensitivity, thus overcoming definitively the contrast and distrust of the media. The Council Fathers defined the media as ‘wonderful technological discoveries ... made with God’s help’ (Inter Mirifica, 1963). A very significant intervention for its clarity was that of Pope Paul VI in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), ‘The Church would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not utilize these powerful means that human skill is daily rendering more perfect.’ However, it is interesting to note that in the following lines to those mentioned, Paul VI drew attention to an important limitation, the ‘challenge’ of religious communication through the mass media, ‘Nevertheless the use of the means of social communication for evangelization presents a challenge: through them the evangelical message should reach vast numbers of people, but with the capacity of piercing the conscience of each individual.’ (#45) For this reason, side by side with the collective proclamation of the Gospel, the other form of transmission, the person-to-person one, remains valid and important. The Lord often used it (#46). Today we can understand the advent of the network as the answer that technology provides to the concerns of the pope. The network in fact goes beyond the limit of the mass media because it promotes the direct contact between the persons indicated by Paul VI as a fundamental requirement of religious communication. In fact, the network promotes interpersonal relationships, is open to all and knows how to reach everyone. This dimension of communication (sharing between people) is also highlighted by the message of Pope Francis for Message of the World Social Communication Day 2014, ‘The revolution-taking place in communications media and in information technologies represents a great and thrilling challenge; may we respond to that challenge with fresh energy and imagination as we seek to share with others the beauty of God.’
How to be present
We would like now to highlight the opportunities that the network offers and that one needs to know in order to use them. Professor Knut Lundby, declares that the presence of the Church in the network does not constitute a special event. He stresses that ‘network communication has become part of everyday life’, indicating three characteristics that have the greatest relevance for the church, because they are linked to the style used by Jesus in his mission,
• connectivity: the possibility of stable contacts, links between people, although large parts of the world are not yet wired,
• immediacy: contact may be direct: you can interact with others as if you were next to each other,
• sharing culture: sharing and collaboration: it is easy to do, and you are encouraged to share ideas on the net.
These three characteristics - dialogue, sharing, and presence - are found also in the instructions proposed by the US Bishops conference in its Social Media Guidelines document of 2014, with the addition of a very important recommendation for an effective presence on the network, accountability. The different forms of presence in the net offer the Church visibility, effective tools to build and sustain the community, connecting people with similar interests, sharing information about in-person events, providing ways for people to engage in dialogue, etc. In order to guarantee the effectiveness of its presence, however, the Church must establish itself as a reliable reference point, ensuring that its actions are accountable.
Forms of presence
The Church might use different ways of being present on Internet: institutional websites; dedicated websites like: official documents, religious music, liturgy, prayer, counselling, religious information, etc. blogs, social networks; social platforms like: Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Godtube, and many others. Visiting your websites, it seems to us that you have chosen the institutional model to present your communities and activities. It was impossible to see all of them, but among those we have visited there are many interesting and some excellent.
1. Mediated communication: Communication can be synchronous (the phone) and asynchronous (a letter, email). Because it is mediated, it is easier to manage. I can use voice (phone); messaging (sms); quick writing (mail); image and sound (videoconferencing), etc. The sender exercises control over the language used. Since it is not a face-to-face communication, it does not have the complexity of interpersonal communication. For example: if I ‘have’ to tell a lie, the most suitable instrument is a text message or an email or a note typed; less suitable the telephone, even more complicated is face-to-face communication (except for people who know how to pretend!).
2.The attraction of digital media and the network: There are technologies that gives us an ability to perform different actions, regardless of where one finds oneself and the real time in which one operates. We can do a whole load of multitasking activities. We can write, read, listen to music, watch movies, television, read books, browse newspapers, visit a museum or a church, follow a celebration, pray the breviary alone or participate in prayer groups, browse a blog, open a profile on the social network, access archives and databases, do shopping, seek employment or work, do online trading, operate banking, take pictures, shoot small films, control survey the house from work and many other thing. In reality we can do actions that before we had to move or be required in be present physically and now, we can do it by just simply turning on the smartphone-network; inability to develop critical judgment from the excess of information, a form of stunning hyper-information; excessive dependence on the judgment of others (on the social networks we have had extreme cases of suicides by teenagers).
3. Media and Communication in the religious community: In a religious community, the quality of interpersonal communication depends on the existence or absence of a significant relationship, of mutual care, respect and friendship. There must be a strong bond between people, a bond that comes from sharing of ideals, from being together, by working together, by praying together, to know how to say things. If the quality of interpersonal communication is a deficit, the mediated communication will maintain and accentuate separation and distrust between people. They will be connected but distant; often more aggressive or harsh than what they would dare to be directly, for example,the brother in the next room who sends me e-mails asking me to borrow a book - it makes no sense, you get up, go and knock on the door! A person internally rich knows how to make choices, knows how to discipline the time dedicated to digital media. Wealth and happiness of life is a great antidote to addiction. This does not mean that a person of this type is completely free from the fascination of technology; however, such a person has higher margins of autonomy. A person poor in spirit or spiritually unhappy tends to be fascinated by digital technology and the network, perhaps because technology offers more frisky and evasive opportunities; technology is able to calm down and fill an existing emptiness. Nevertheless, these surrogates do not solve the real problem and eventually people turn out to be addicted to technology. When a religious tends to abuse food, alcohol, media, or other outputs such as overwork, this is seeking compensation, a sign that something needs to be done. The network provides content for all perversions as also for all the virtues. For this reason, formation, education and self-control are essential.
4. How the media influence young people: Youngsters who are born and raised in a cultural environment that is dominated by values of power and money, have as models what that culture has to offer, often without enjoying the protection of the various educational agencies in crisis like family, school, church. Young people use the media as a mediated system of survival, such as protective shields, from the moment they connect themselves with reality, but at a ‘safe distance’. So at least it is perceived; however, many fall victims of swindles. They run the risk in pretending that everything in life is like a click on the mouse or a touch on the screen, everything seems to be easy. The network allow anonymous contact during adolescence and this is a strategy to glimpse the reality that surrounds us.
5. How to form people for monastic life that come from a digital world: The basic problem is the decolonization of the imagination of the young people who have breathed, lived the idea that without some things you cannot feel happy. A youngster, who has grown up with the idea that without his gadgets (smartphone or tablet or computer) and without being connected to the network cannot live, will have to begin a process that makes it possible to give meaning to existence here and now without the continued use of technology. Such a person will thus realize to be a creature among creatures in a world that even in the eyes of God is fascinating, will learn to look with new eyes, with new attention and will feel alive and happy.
6. Education for silence: In the network, there is no silence. It is a continuous flow of everything and more. There is never an inter- ruption, except when the signal disappears through the collapse of the system. This means that education to silence today is a real challenge because of the fact that there are no places of silence at the social level. Cities, neighbourhoods, homes are constantly inundated with noise pollution. Silence is something foreign to the lives of young people, they do not know its meaning, do not practice it. Often they create a personal space (to isolate themselves from others) wearing their headsets or pump up the sound at full volume; they love music at deafening levels to plunge into sound vibrations and forget to surrender to the rhythm. For them silence is uncanny!
 Franco Lever, ‘Christian art as a locus theologicus and the digital media’, in Salesianum, 25 (1913) 2, 349-357.
 It might be useful to keep in mind some key points for developing and managing a website:
• First time visitors - what they want to see; a welcome statement is key: it must be brief, concise and use language that is emotive and appeals directly to each individual who enters the site.
• Using strong images for impact: have something eye catching: video, audio, photography.
• Mission Statement included: focus on faith.
• Keep the site up-to-date: no outdated information on home page.
• Keep it simple for a good navigation – don’t use jargon.
• A tool for teaching and learning: discussion forums - links to other Catholic resources.
• Email registration for newsletters/electronic communications (Newsletters, etc.).