With more and more young people reaching out to one another through social media, there has been an increased call for new forms of ministry to teens within these virtual worlds. With the advent of public writing sites that allow for the free-flowing expression of ideas through poetry and prose, there is a greater potential for darkness to rear its ugly head. This calls for Catholic clergy and youth ministers to shine the light of Christ into that darkness in ways that will speak to teens right where they are. As we venture onto these writing sites, we can learn a great deal about how the current social media culture seems to be shaping the way teens view and express their identity, their fears, and their pain. Pope Francis and Pope Benedict had much to say about Catholics and online communication in their World Communications Day messages. Drawing from their wisdom, let us consider the ways Catholics can reach out to young people on the Internet, in order to spark greater dialogue about the role clergy, Catholic youth ministers, and Catholic youth can play in responding to the pain teens experience while navigating the intense world of words on social media sites.
The Emotional World of Online Teen Writing…
One of the first things a visitor to these sites will discover is that there is a large percentage of poetry and prose that focuses on depression, cutting, and emotional brokenness. Here, many teens commiserate with one another over the harshness of their lives. These tender, hurting souls are posting brutally honest commentary about their circumstances, beautiful and often dark poetry describing their pain and despair, and rants that rage against the cruel world around them. Much of it is very difficult to read, not only because of the pain it describes, but even more so because of the hopelessness that lies behind that pain. Some could argue that these posts merely express the emotional drama that all teens experience, perhaps overstated for effect. But one could just as easily argue that these posts reflect the sad reality that our social media-rich culture has, in many ways, contributed to a climate of loneliness, abuse, and abandonment in the hearts of young people.
How can Catholic clergy help their ministry teams and the youth within their congregations to respond to teens who are living in this dark and challenging world of words? Pope Francis, in his Message for the 48th World Communications Day: Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter (Sunday, June 1, 2014), outlined some basic principles the faithful should consider when engaging the world through the Internet and social media. His words speak to the unity inspired by the love that Christ has shown to the world:
In a world like this, media can help us to feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family which can in turn inspire solidarity and serious efforts to ensure a more dignified life for all. Good communication helps us to grow closer, to know one another better, and ultimately, to grow in unity. The walls which divide us can be broken down only if we are prepared to listen and learn from one another. We need to resolve our differences through forms of dialogue which help us grow in understanding and mutual respect.1
Young people are certainly listening to one another online; but often, there seems to be very little hope in the writing or responses that are being posted. There is plenty of validation and camaraderie among these tortured teens. However, this virtual sharing of likes, votes, and comments in some sense may only serve to perpetuate the whole cycle of despondency among the young people. Sympathetic replies from kindred souls prompt the teen authors to turn out additional chapters, and their writing leads to further expressions of support. It leaves one to wonder if all this writing is only an emotional release with no real resolution. Furthermore, with all the graphic descriptions of self-mutilation and suicidal ideation within the writing, there is a concern that the prose and poetry may actually be triggering the teens to initiate further self-abuse.
The young people are also writing about their struggles with identity, and especially their sexual identity. Many of the culturally and politically correct terms so prevalent in society have found their way into their posts: bi-sexual, bi-curious, pansexual, gender fluid, gender blind, transgender, and so on. The teens call for validation of the particular identity they say they have chosen; and yet there also appears to be an underlying sense of confusion and personal conflict behind their words. Given time and support, it is possible for these young people to work through these issues and come to a deeper understanding of who they are; but in the virtual world, blanket acceptance of these “life choices” is the norm. The young people often write about the “prejudice” of others, but express their feelings in such a way as to leave any discussion on the subject closed, labeling anyone with a different opinion as intolerant. In the comments on these pages, many applaud the person’s choice without ever addressing the struggle expressed in the words. There is little discussion about the possibility of working through personal identity issues, and even less consideration of the deeper implications such “tolerance” has on the overall process of developing a spiritual identity.
Trust, not Tracts…
The Holy Father has offered insight as to how Catholic clergy can encourage their leaders and their congregations to use media to communicate the Gospel to a hurting world. His call to engage others in a spirit of solidarity tells us that we must not simply offer messages of doctrine, but should learn to share our faith in a give-and-take that is based on mutual love and respect. We cannot be obscure virtual figures who disseminate information or preach to online individuals without getting to know them. Our response must be one of personal engagement:
It is not enough to be passersby on the digital highways, simply “connected”; connections need to grow into true encounters. We cannot live apart, closed in on ourselves. We need to love and to be loved. We need tenderness. Media strategies do not ensure beauty, goodness and truth in communication. The world of media also has to be concerned with humanity, it too is called to show tenderness. The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity; a network not of wires but of people. The impartiality of media is merely an appearance; only those who go out of themselves in their communication can become a true point of reference for others. Personal engagement is the basis of the trustworthiness of a communicator. Christian witness, thanks to the internet, can thereby reach the peripheries of human existence.2
In crafting a response to young people, Catholics who minister to teens online need to employ a gentler touch: building trust rather than passing out tracts, so to speak. Instead of launching into some sort of calculated discourse on Church teachings and Christian virtues, we need to read more deeply into the writing and pray to draw out the hidden meaning behind the words. We must look for the needs behind the anger and the longing behind the tears. Our model must be the encounters between Jesus and those He met along the road of life on His journey to the cross. We must be willing to engage others the way Jesus engaged the woman at the well in John 4:1-42. Ostracized by her village and forced to draw water in the heat of the day, this was an individual full of suffering and sorrow. Rather than chastising this adulterous woman, Jesus, the all-knowing and all-loving Savior, chose to engage her in conversation. He offered her living water, though initially she did not fully comprehend the deeper meaning behind His words. But slowly, the One without a bucket or dipper was able to draw up the pain and need from the well of this daughter’s aching heart. Her dialogue went from guarded irritation to awareness of her need; and in the end, she became open to being filled by the Messiah.
As we pray over the writings of these teens, we must ask God for the wisdom to see each person in the same way Christ saw this woman. In the pain of rejection, we can see the need for affirmation. In the despair of abuse and bullying we can see the need for the safety of sacrificial love. Self-loathing should help us to understand the teen’s desire for something to fill the emptiness inside. Self-harm should alert us to the desperate cry for the soothing touch of a trusted hand. Each tear and tragic story must move us to listen with heaven’s heart and respond with truth, tenderness, and understanding. The love of Christ should cause us to spill words of healing and hope onto the reply pages of their posts. A vote does not have to be an endorsement of their ideology, but can be a knock at the door of a wounded heart. Each reply can be fashioned to speak to individuals where they are. As we meet on the common ground of our interests, we can point out the cleverness of wordplay, the relevance of each metaphor, and the unique stylistic choices made within the writing. As we reply we can also offer a word or two of wisdom, a sliver of humor and hope, and an overture of friendship without judgment. And as each door opens, we can bid the Savior to enter into the conversation and move hearts to change and grow.
A Listening Ear, a Healing Word…
Building trust online is a slow process of understanding the pain behind the words and recognizing the beauty deep down in those broken hearts. We should always be aware that, while online communication can create a false sense of intimacy, we must still view each encounter as an opportunity to live out the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 15. It is best to approach each virtual conversation as both a writer and someone with a gift for healing. Our words can be a spiritual balm to soothe the wounds the young people have suffered. We can offer understanding rather than approval for behaviors. We need not accept beliefs contrary to our own, but we should spend time listening to each person’s thoughts before expressing our own beliefs in a gentle and loving way. As we build each online relationship with honesty and openness, this gentle process can lead to further conversation and eventual conversion. As Pope Francis has said:
May the image of the Good Samaritan who tended to the wounds of the injured man by pouring oil and wine over them be our inspiration. Let our communication be a balm which relieves pain and a fine wine which gladdens hearts. May the light we bring to others not be the result of cosmetics or special effects, but rather of our being loving and merciful “neighbours” to those wounded and left on the side of the road. Let us boldly become citizens of the digital world. \The Church needs to be concerned for, and present in, the world of communication, in order to dialogue with people today and to help them encounter Christ. She needs to be a Church at the side of others, capable of accompanying everyone along the way.3
In Part II of the piece we will continue our thoughts, take a look at some specific issues teens face, and share some specifics on how we can respond as individuals and as a Church.
1 Pope Francis. “Message for the 48th World Communications Day: Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter.” www.vatican.va. Sunday, June 1, 2014. Paragraph 2. http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/communications/documents/papa-francesco_20140124_messaggio-comunicazioni-sociali.html
2 Pope Francis. “Message for the 48th World Communications Day: Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter.” www.vatican.va. Sunday, June 1, 2014. Paragraph 7. http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/communications/documents/papa-francesco_20140124_messaggio-comunicazioni-sociali.html
3 Pope Francis. “Message for the 48th World Communications Day: Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter.” www.vatican.va. Sunday, June 1, 2014. Paragraph 10.http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/communications/documents/papa-francesco_20140124_messaggio-comunicazioni-sociali.html