Internet should be seen not as an enemy of faith

We must embrace and live within the web, says Ronnie Convery
The Vatican and Pope Francis are on board with the tech age. Picture: APThe Vatican and Pope Francis are on board with the tech age. Picture: AP
The Vatican and Pope Francis are on board with the tech age. Picture: AP

I HAVE always found book launches rather pleasant affairs. Usually a glass of warmish white wine (from a box), a pile of shiny new paperbacks to be signed and a proud author displaying many of the traits of a new parent cradling a first born.

As a newbie to the world of book writing, my journalistic mind thinks of a long read as a 2,000-word spread. I found it vaguely indulgent to be allowed to not only plant, but propagate ideas that had been growing in the compost at the back of my mind for some time – ideas relating to education and religion and how they are coping with their new noisy neighbour the internet. Thus was born a collaboration with two co-authors from the University of Glasgow, Leonardo Franchi and Raymond McCluskey leading to the launch of Reclaiming the Piazza published last month by Gracewing.

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Our launch was singularly devoid of warm boxed liebfraumilch, but to compensate we had the honour of holding it at an international conference in the Vatican on the day Pope Francis himself came to speak. The venue was hugely significant. For the thesis of my contribution to the book is that the church must make the web her natural home.

We can no longer see the internet as a disruptive enemy competing for the interest and affection of our people, but rather an integral part of life which needs to be reckoned with ahead of any lesson plan or sermon.

The Vatican, even before the whirlwind of change unleashed by Pope Francis, seemed to get that message. A Vatican website was up and running in good time.

We now also have rather splendid PopeApp which allows commuters on the 9.30am Scotrail service from Queen Street to Waverley to assist at a Papal Audience every Wednesday on their smartphones (this may explain the distraction of certain travellers).

But providing a presence online is not enough. People no longer visit the digital world before returning to the real world. The digital world is part of the real world. In the words of the Italian Jesuit who pioneered cyber-theology, Fr Antonio Spadaro, the internet “is not a tool” but “an environment and an experience – we exist on the internet”, hence the idea that “part of our life of faith, too, is digital”.

To be effective, teachers and preachers alike must drop their view of new media as enemies to be kept at bay, seeing them rather as social and cultural realities with many merits.

New media favour interaction. They allow and require active intervention from the basic option of choosing a TV channel to more sophisticated interaction via 4G hand-held devices. The user is a participant, smashing forever the rigid division of roles based on the model of the student collecting titbits of knowledge falling from the master’s table. The new media allow the sharing of digital content. Instant and free access to information which can be downloaded and redistributed without cost is now the norm – surely a democratiser of knowledge which any educator would applaud?

Perhaps the most challenging educational implication of all this is the capacity of digital media to create new communities, responding to the human need for relationship and participation. This dimension can be summed up in the word “friendship”, a keyword of the social networks (a Facebook friend may be someone the user has never met, whose voice would never be recognised, whose background and values are unknown).

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From an educational point of view, learning is not confined to the relationship between parent and child, teacher and pupil, worker and apprentice. It is also carried out among equals in the context of a friend relationship. Friendship is inherently educational (for good or ill) and online friendship is no different. The important thing is not the quantity of relationships online but their quality.

It is important not to minimise or undervalue the importance of just ‘being together’ which all the studies show to be the most important and satisfying thing for young people in their use of social networks.

It is important however that this ‘being together’ should not simply be the habitation of a vacuum, the forum for banalities, the source of alienation or degradation or a stimulus to transgression as a result of boredom.

And herein lies the challenge for the preacher and teacher. Knowledge is now no longer a product to be dispensed. It is a universe to be navigated. Information is everywhere – what is needed is a new generation of guides, masters in the ancient art of discernment, to pilot their students and congregations to fertile shores,

Wisdom and expertise will always be required as always of a good teacher. . . but so too will a good wifi connection.

Ronnie Convery is director of communications, Archdiocese of Glasgow