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placeholder  September 7, 2015   •   VOL. 53, NO. 15   •   Oakland, CA
College Information Guide

Catholics and digital media:
Answering to a higher calling

Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, a theologian with a keen interest in communications, was the leader of a social media conference — "Sharing the Good News in the Era of Pope Francis" — hosted by the Cummins Institute at Saint Mary's College of California this summer.

Zsupan-Jerome is the author of "Connected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age." Zsupan-Jerome's research, which has taken her to The Vatican, focuses on media and ministry, especially digital media and its potential for faith formation. She is an assistant professor of theology at Loyola University of New Orleans. During the conference at Saint Mary's, Zsupan-Jerome spoke with Michele Jurich of The Catholic Voice.

What are the considerations for Catholics as we use digital media?

I think being Roman Catholic is an identity, not just what I do on Sundays, or an item of jewelry I wear. It's a manner of being in the world, totally, whether one is in church or one is not in church. There is a definitive shape of what Catholic communication looks like, whether that's on social media or face to face.

The recognition of a person behind the screen. We're not just reacting to disembodied symbols and images and text on the screen, but, being Roman Catholic, there's a disposition of relationality, of seeking the person behind the screen, whoever put the image up. Have one's heart open to that, even in the most basic interactions.

So that's a disposition. But it's also a way to avoid to what I would call violent behavior online; cyber bullying is the most extreme but even just thoughtless comments, or something more innocuous, like rushing through an email and not reading it carefully. It's something another person put time and effort into. … If we as Roman Catholics, and more broadly, Christians, believe the fullness of God's self-communication is Jesus Christ, one of the most interesting things about that statement is that Jesus Christ didn't come as a thought or an idea or a doctrine. He came first and foremost as an embodied person who came and lived and dwelt among us. He healed us, touched our bodies and fed us. That's the fullness of God's revelation. From that we have doctrine, in Scripture, which is recorded. In its essence, it is the person being there. Therefore, person to person, relationality matters; the body matters; presence matters. Anything we do in communications needs to honor that.

What's the challenge, for church leaders, in finding the authentic voice? Do we have the expectation they write these blogs themselves?

This is a time of growth and learning and experimentation for the Church. No one's got this figured out. … we see our bishops trying different things. On the one hand, we have Cardinal Sean O'Malley's blog that tells about what he's done. On the other hand, you have the Vimeo Channel "On the road" for Bishop Coyne out of Vermont. What he does, as far as I can gather, he's in his car a lot as bishop, going to different pastoral obligations. From his car as he's driving, he'll set up his phone and record a little video while driving. He describes what he's up to, like Cardinal Sean, but there's a bit more presence there. It's clearly evident that he's doing that. There's reality. I think its genius. It deconstructs our bishops in a way that makes them approachable, without taking away their dignity.

It's well within the realm of being bishop to be formal, that's what they are. Digital media allows us to be a bit more playful, like Bishop Coyne, or Pope Francis speaking into an iPhone or doing Google Hangouts.

How can we include everybody in the digital age?

There's a challenge and an opportunity there. The generation difference isn't as wide as perceived. The Pew Internet Life project demonstrates trends of social media use by age and gender. They've consistently showed the age group of 65 and up is lagging behind, but it is the one that is growing faster in terms of adaptation. People 65 and over are a growing population. They shouldn't be given up on. The joke is they're getting on Facebook to see their grandchildren. I like to say they are getting on Facebook for their own interests. Surely people who are 65 and 70 have their own interests; they treat themselves to information.

I like to push back on the perception that social media only matters for young people. I think all generations use it.

This is where it becomes a team effort, at the parish level and diocesan level: How do we have a multilayer approach that creates communication ecology? The message goes out on different platforms. There's the bulletin. Not everybody picks up the bulletin. It may or may not make it out of the car. Maybe an electronic newsletter?

How can a team-based approach find a way to make it a collaborative effort? The Vatican is dealing with that right now, thinking about all communication channels being on one page. That takes collaboration, consideration and team effort. Our culture calls for that anyway.

I would not give up on the senior generation, if that's the proper term for it. They're showing participation in their own ways, for their own reasons.

Are we called to keep the conversation online at a higher level?

It's within the right of an organization to establish rules for its own house. It goes back to hospitality. If I offer hospitality to someone in my home, please take your shoes off and don't drag in the mud. There's a way we sit around the table and you're not on the phone. There's respect there.

What are the ways we extend hospitality in a digital context? It doesn't have to be a free-for-all. We can welcome comments yet still holding contributions to standards that maintain the good of all.

It's OK to moderate comments. Each organization has a right to determine what hospitality looks like. In a Catholic context it looks a certain way, based on the values. I would always empower the institution to make those decisions.

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