I wrote about Twitter, the hard-to-define web service that allows users to post 140-character messages, typically to share thoughts or links to interesting articles. While this social network might never completely enter the mainstream, Facebook has truly fixed its place in our first-world lives. (I offer as anecdotal evidence that my parents and uncles recently joined, given that, just a few years ago, I had wondered if I was too old to respectably post my profile.)
The Church is now forced to acknowledge its ubiquity. Pope Benedict discussed the benefits and drawbacks of social networking services in his message for the 43rd World Day of Communications
. Then earlier this month, new Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols delivered the strongest caution yet
from a high-ranking prelate, warning that overly relying on transient internet relationships could lead young people to suicide.
But there is a growing contingent of priests on Facebook. Surely among the most tech-savvy is Fr. Christopher Decker, an iPod-toting New Orleans priest who hosts the popular Catholic Underground
podcast. On his profile, he includes St. Athanasius and St. Faustina Kowalska among his favourite quotes. An integrated application called “Exquisite Vestments” allows him to trade virtual birettas and cassocks.
“It does enhance my relationship with God,” Fr. Chris claims. “It allows me to pray for those with distressed or troubling Facebook status messages. I receive requests for spiritual direction via Facebook mail.”
Still, he acknowledges that there are legitimate reasons to be concerned. Because users carefully select their profile pictures and personal information, they can “create themselves in their own image, rather than seeking a deeper understanding of who God has created them to be.”
Another of my ‘Facebook friends’ is Alejandra de la Roca, who I met at World Youth Day 2008 as we participated in the International Liturgy Committee. Alejandra’s Facebook profile picture shows her meeting Pope Benedict XVI in Sydney—an image that appeared on the cover of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano in March.
Residing in Guatemala City, Alejandra appreciates how Facebook allows her to stay in touch with other Church-going friends, particularly those from distant countries who she met at WYD. In her home country, though, she notes how these technologies also have the potential to divide.
“In Guatemala, the poverty index is very high and most of these people do not have access to technology, so the gap between poor and wealthy people is increasing all the time.”
Auravelia Colomer, who counts me among her nearly 1200 online friends, considers herself a “Facebook and email missionary”. Taking seriously the potential to evangelize through social networking, the outgoing Portuguese-Canadian says she makes an effort to engage her friends in spiritual conversations. Active in numerous ministries, she also uses Facebook to promote Catholic events and encourage participation in novenas and feast days.
Auravelia understands that Facebook content may not necessarily be kept private. (A quick Google search, for example, will reveal many accounts of people getting fired for posting derogatory comments about their employers.)
“I feel it challenges me to be accountable to myself, others and Christ,” she maintains. “I’m aware that what I say and do on Facebook will influence how others view not only me, but the Catholic Church and all Christians.”