Sometimes Just Keep it Simple
As we mark the centenary of The Southern Cross, it is tempting not only to look back over 100 years but also to imagine ourselves 100 years forwards. What is likely to change?
One thing which will definitely change is technology — we only have to pause to consider the many ways in which technology over the past century has already changed our lives (and so also our Church). Of course, the Church’s relationship with science has been complex, with great support for science on the one hand (like the pontifical academies), and the silencing of scientists like Galileo and Teilhard de Chardin on the other.
But over the past 100 years the Church has usually embraced technology (even if a bit late) and used it to good effect. You might be reading this article on a computer, or even on your phone; what is more, a reader in London can access it at the same time as one in East London.
And it’s not just about digital access. Technology has radically changed the way in which newspapers and magazines have been produced, massively reducing costs and speeding up production. The lovely colour pictures that you enjoy in the printed magazine would have been unaffordable for the first half of the last 100 years, and even very costly just 20 years ago.
Over the next 100 years, who knows what further developments in technology there will be? Perhaps my article will be beamed straight from my brain into yours without any intermediary of printed words at all — a scary thought which would require all of us writers to do a lot more self-editing! Perhaps I myself will be redundant, with Artificial Intelligence generating this article from an algorithm based on what the reader is interested in, what is topical, and what Church teaching has to share. (How do we know that this article wasn’t written by a robot?)
A means, not an end
We need to continue to look at technologies as they emerge — not being scared or suspicious of them. But we also always need to remember that they are a means to an end and not an end in themselves.
Over 50 years ago, talking about the new technologies of that era, the Vatican II document on social communication captured this succinctly: “It is, therefore, an inherent right of the
Church to have at its disposal and to employ any of these media insofar as they are necessary or useful for the instruction of Christians and all its efforts for the welfare of souls” (Inter Mirifica 3).
That focus on the end — building the kingdom, preaching the Gospel, ministering to the poor, developing community — will help us judge how to use new technologies and also when they are just not appropriate.
My favourite admonitory story about technology comes from the time of the Space Race. The Americans were very anxious about how their astronauts would write in space, given the effect of zero gravity. They experimented with different kinds of pens and various consistencies of ink. Yet for all their technological prowess, they still made no progress. When the Soviet Union sent up their cosmonauts they armed them with a spectacularly effective writing instrument: a pencil!
This is to warn us that sometimes we get so carried away with the latest technology that we forget about the simple solutions.
A group of homeless men in Durban have started growing vegetables in their emergency shelter, and the Denis Hurley Centre is helping them to generate revenue from this. I asked recently what ideas they had for marketing their produce, and they were very excited about having a website or a Facebook page.
They seemed a bit disappointed when I suggested that the most effective way might be a simple printed flyer that they could drop off at the buildings next door to alert the hundreds of potential customers who were living close by, and have an old-fashioned sign at the shelter entrance.
In the same way, we need to reflect on what we have learnt about technology during the lock-down. Its use by some parishes has been phenomenal; St Joseph’s in Morningside, Durban, springs to mind. They have used a variety of different formats to give people access to the Mass, catechetical instruction, online retreats and times of reflection.
These are all great and we need to continue to develop new ideas. But as Catholics — that is, universal — we’re also beholden to make sure we share technology in a way that doesn’t limit access to only a small elite. And at the same time we must not neglect the simpler methods.
I hope that priests who have been stressing about Zoom-Masses have also spent some time just picking up the phone and have a chat with parishioners who are stuck at home, especially the elderly and the isolated. We are tempted to chase after “social media” when the most social form of media — talking to people — is overlooked.
And when we do engage with technology, let’s bring in our values and ethos and not succumb to the often value-free environment that many technology companies foster, as a means of making them more money. Twitter could be an effective way of sharing our faith in a succinct and accessible way. But sadly, some Church people (often very senior) have fallen prey to the slanging-match mentality for which Twitter has become renowned. We should not be hiding behind technology to say things that we would be embarrassed to say face-to-face.
And let’s also not get carried away with ourselves. Technology can be used to deliver complex information, but sometimes all people want is a simple answer. So if you run a parish website, go and check how many clicks it takes for people to find out the answer to the most popular question asked online: “What time is Mass?”
Let’s embrace new technologies over the next 100 years but always remember that they are at the service of the people and to be used in the service of God. All the rest is a loud gong or clashing cymbal!
This column by Raymond Perrier was printed in the November issue of The Southern Cross Magazine.
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