More than 50 people from across the country attended a half-day seminar in St Patrick’s College Maynooth on Wednesday 29 May to mark World Communications Day 2019. The seminar, which was chaired by Senator Joan Freeman, was entitled  ‘Believers in the Digital World: Opportunities for Mission’.

In her opening remarks Senator Joan Freeman said she has passion for the vulnerable, in particular our children and has been working on legislation to safeguard children online. She said, “We’ve seen an increase in suicide in young teenagers. Young girls have been able to access sites which teach them how to take their lives. If one of your children walked into a room with a complete stranger and this stranger taught them how to kill themselves, wouldn’t you go ballistic?”

People hear constantly of the negative aspects of the internet, but Pope Francis has a very balanced view of the net with its challenges, but also as a “a source of knowledge and relationships that were once unthinkable,” she went on to say.

Social media was a focus of the Synod of Bishops on Youth in Rome last October, where the bishops spoke of the “exploitation of young people online”,

Delivering the opening address, Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland, and Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Dromore, told the gathering that social media was a focus of the Synod of Bishops on Youth in Rome last October. He said, “the young people pleaded with us that the Church should not just stand outside the digital world, looking in with disapproval”, but recognise that Digital Technology is now a permanent part of the life and identity of the majority of young people, and increasingly so, of all of us.

“Some speak of the ‘ME’ or ‘selfie’ generation, which needs instant gratification and is nurtured by the narcissism and voyeurism of social networking – the extremes of this are seen in young people constantly checking their phones for likes and friends, obsessing for hours over their profile picture, or the macabre filming and instant sharing of tragic incidents like road accidents or the aftermath of terrorist attacks. What can believers say into this space?” he asked.

Archbishop Eamon went on to propos ten principlesto guide our presence on the Digital Highways, which are as follows:

1. Be positive, communicating the ‘joy of the Gospel’. 2. Strictly avoid aggression and ‘preachiness’ online; try not to be judgemental. 3. Never bear false witness. 4. Fill the internet with charity and love and solidarity with the suffering in the world. 5. Have a “broad back” when criticisms and insults are made – when possible, gently correct. 6. Pray in the digital world! 7. Establish connections, relationships and build communion. 8. Educate young people to keep themselves safe and responsible online (from cyberbullying, porn and gambling). 9. Give a soul to the internet – witness to human dignity online. 10. Be missionary – a message can reach the ends of the earth in seconds!

With social networks used by 2.4 billion people and 30 million messages posted on Facebook every minute, Brenda Drumm from the Catholic Communications Office told the seminar, “We have to think about how our faith and belief lands into this chattering planet. Do not be afraid to put out into the deep of the internet. We have a great story to share. Let’s share it, but [do so] against the backdrop of the principles that Archbishop Martin has shared with us.”

Emma Tobin and Oisin Walsh shared their experience of growing up as digital natives. Emma, a 22-year-old postgraduate student, said, “I’ve tried to ignore it, tried to pretend it didn’t matter to me if people ‘liked’ what I said or not, but in reality, it does matter. It mattered immensely, to me.”

Through Tumblr, a microblogging platform, she discovered “dozens of people” who shared her interests and through social media she has spoken to people all over the world – “people a thousand miles away who needed me after a difficult break-up, who needed me to tell them that they wouldn’t be working in a McDonald’s in central London forever.

“Social media is powerful. Less than six months ago I was reading pleas from bloggers I half-knew in Brazil, who claimed that the election of a new president might endanger their very lives. Some of those bloggers have since gone silent. I can scarcely imagine how small my world would be if I hadn’t sat on my bed in awe reading as my friend in Istanbul described getting water cannoned during political protests in her city, what she recommended for your eyes after getting tear-gassed. In a moment, I can read with my own eyes what Pope Francis is saying about climate, about migrants. Social media has touched almost every aspect of my life, I think ultimately for the better.”

Recently, walking through a shopping centre, she noticed the play of light on the polished floors. Everyone was watching their screens. “And for a moment, yes, I thought that was a shame. It is. But then I imagined those people lit up with invisible threads of light, signals, connecting them to faraway people, connecting them to invisible worlds and unheard conversations. And I thought it was beautiful too,” she concluded.

Oisin, Assistant to the Editor of Intercom magazine, said that the internet and faith can interface in the most unexpected of ways as he shared a story of a friend who called him to say he was ‘listening to the Bible on YouTube and was five hours into it’.

The seminar also looked at the darker side of the internet with Detective Sergeant Mary McCormack of the Online Child Exploitation Unit in An Garda Siochana offering an overview of the extent of online abuse and how Church and society can respond. Darren Butler from the Irish Bishops’ Drugs Initiative spoke about the role of parishes in responding to the addictive behaviour that often accompanies our use of social media.

Concluding the seminar, Archbishop Eamon, said that the day had been educational and positive and that he was in a way ‘sending out’ all those who had participated to ‘put out into the deep of the net’.

Click here for photos from the event

ENDS