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‘You will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth...’

 ‘You will be my witnesses  to the ends of the earth...’  ING-008
23 February 2024


On Saturday, 28 October, the Summary Report of the first Session of the xvi Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops was presented; the second Session will be held next October. The objective was and remains to realize an assembly of the People of God presided over by its pastors, the bishops, together with a representation of the laity in an atmosphere of dialogue and exchange of views. The Pope hinted at this in 2015, during a commemorative address on the 50th anniversary of the first Synod of Bishops, desired by Saint Paul vi: “The path of synodality is the path awaited by the Church of the third millennium”. Not a path understood as one more thing to be done, but rather a new style to be assumed. And it is precisely through this style that Pope Francis believes we can initiate the necessary change for a “Missionary Transformation of the Church”, that is, an outgoing Church, capable of being a credible sign in what is not simply an epoch of change but a change of epoch, and knowing how to “live problems as challenges and not as obstacles”. The Synthesis Report, published on 28 October, brings together the work of the Synodal Assembly, which in turn worked on the content that came from all the Bishops’ Conferences of the world. This listening, which started from below, has become a voice in this Assembly. I think it is important to emphasize this because the topic of our interest, which is presented in the Report in a paragraph entitled “Digital Missionaries”, is therefore not a whim of a few, but bears now a worldwide scope in which to become fellow travelers in the digital context.

A second premise that I consider opportune to make is the fact that last 4 December marked the 60th anniversary of the Council Decree Inter Mirifica dedicated to the use on the instruments of communication, a Document that gathers together the path made by the Church in the field of communications and relaunches its reflection and action with respect to emerging trends. It acts as a sign of that sympathetic gaze and trust that the Church has always reserved for the theme of communication, a natural extension of God’s communicative act with His people: “God, who many times and in various ways in ancient times had spoken to the fathers through the prophets, lately, in these days, has spoken to us through the Son...”; and it is Jesus Himself who has revealed to us the face of the Father: “He who has seen me has seen the Father”. Of course, He is a living Word that is not always easy to understand: think only of the beginnings, of a God who becomes incarnate in the frailty of a helpless child, and then a God who reveals His omnipotence by dying on the Cross. Yet, this Word ripped open the heavens, became Event for us while communicating to us the Father’s Love. Today, the Church is called to continue to make herself a living Word, to communicate — through the most suitable means — her actions, words and choices, so that the world, seeing, may believe.

Digital missionaries

The paragraph dedicated to “communication” of the Synod Synthesis bears a particularly evocative title: “Mission in the Digital Environment”. Rather than chasing forms and expressions in vogue today — think only of the term “influencer” — the Synod wanted to start again from Scripture, as if to recall the identity of the Christian, of the one who received from Jesus Himself not only the mandate to “go” but also the content to be “proclaimed”: “You will be my witnesses/missionaries to the ends of the earth”.

Secondly, the Synod recalls the Encyclical of Saint John Paul ii , Redemptoris Missio, dedicated to the theme of missions, where within it a paragraph is dedicated to the areopagus of communications, with the invitation to inhabit this territory in order to bring the proclamation of the Gospel, pointing out contextually that this “inhabiting” has its own precise profile: “The call to mission derives in itself from the call to holiness. Every missionary is authentically such if they commit themself to the way of holiness....”. Finally, as we mentioned in the introduction, in the entire Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis asks the whole Church to become missionary, an outgoing Church, aware, as Pope Benedict xvi had occasion to say, that the media have created an “enormous enlargement of the frontiers of communication... with new gaps between the included and the excluded and... consequent dangers of homogenization and control, of moral relativism... of a decline in the critical spirit”. Therefore, the “digital missionary” is called to reach everyone through this avenue.

Alongside the term “missionary” is the term “digital”. “The digital environment”, writes the final text of the Synod, “modifies our learning processes, our perception of time, space, body, interpersonal relationships and our entire way of thinking. The dualism between real and virtual does not adequately describe the reality and experience of all of us, especially the youngest, the so-called ‘digital natives’”. In this whirlwind of change, Pope Francis in recent years has offered us a kind of “grammar” for inhabiting this time and these spaces, learning to “go and see”, “listen”, and “speak from the heart”. The golden thread that unites this sort of trilogy is the heart: “It is the heart that moved us to go, see and listen and it is the heart that moves us to open and welcoming communication”. Words that emphasize and encourage us to “inhabit” the digital with the burning and passionate heart of the Lord Jesus, the only Way of Truth for a full and mature Life.

The Final Report of this first part of the Synod does not offer pre-packaged answers, and does not attempt to “occupy spaces” with theoretical formulas, but has “opened processes”, aware that time is superior to space: “Time orders spaces, illuminates them and transforms them into a constantly growing chain, without backtracking. It is a matter of privileging actions that generate new dynamisms in society and involve other people...”.

Digital missionaries: some traits

Curiosity. It is that innate drive to be interested in what one does not yet know; it is a desire to have new experiences and welcome new things. Recovering a biblical image, it is about leaving the shore of the lake and setting sail on this “digital sea”, ready to cast the net of commitment and passion, learning to turn curiosity into opportunity, knowing how to step out of one’s box.

Courage. Letting ourselves be guided by curiosity demands the courage to admit that we do not know everything, that we need to learn, to understand and, therefore, also to accept to be helped in order to better serve those around us. But courage lies not only in learning a “new language”, such as “digital”, but also in being able to remain steadfast in the “Here I am” with which we have adhered to the Lord’s invitation to stand behind Him.

However, there is always the risk, as happened with Simon Peter, of wanting to change course in order to sweeten the proposal of the Gospel or make following the Lord Jesus more palatable. “The real reformers are the saints... only from the saints, only from God comes the real revolution, the decisive change in the world”. In other words, the basic question that with courage the “digital missionary” must always ask themself is: what I am seeking, seeing, hearing, what I am proposing... is it a step behind Jesus toward the Father, or am I taking my own way? Which the Synod translated as follows, “As a Church and as individual digital missionaries we have a duty to ask ourselves how to ensure that our online presence constitutes a growth experience for those with whom we communicate”. To accept this “mission” is first and foremost to agree to set ourselves on a “path of holiness”, knowing how to proclaim and bear witness to the Lord Jesus: “What we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have contemplated, and what our hands have touched, that is, the Word of life, we proclaim to you”. In other words, what we have experienced we proclaim to you.

Belonging. The enthusiasm of sailing is not enough if we do not know to Whom we belong, Who is sending us and what is the message to be carried: “Missionaries have always set out with Christ to new frontiers, preceded and impelled by the action of the Spirit. Today it is our turn to reach out to today’s culture in all the spaces where people seek meaning and love, including their cell phones and tablets”. This is why Jesus’ word of all time applies to the “digital missionary”: “He chose them to be with Him and also to send them”, lest they find themselves anonymous digital citizens confused among an anonymous crowd. Belonging is a guarantee of life, of the ability to be nourished and bear fruit: “Abide in me and I in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit from itself unless it remains in the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me... without me you can do nothing”. And in this relationship of friendship with the Lord, the “digital missionary” grows and is nourished in the arms of Mother Church. Only in this way do they not “lose their compass”.

Expertise. It takes more than good will and enthusiasm, curiosity and courage to navigate this new world. Competence is also needed, that is, the ability to understand this “world”, its language, its rules, its strengths and weaknesses, to avoid being tossed around by any fad. The “digital mission” well represents that piece of land that the Lord entrusts to be “cultivated and guarded”.

A competence that demands study, comparison, insight, humility and prudence, because “Everything is permissible/useful to me! But not everything benefits... I will not be dominated by anything”. Let us not forget that when the Lord Jesus sent the disciples into the world, he sent them “two by two” to say, with the simple word, that the Christian experience is lived in companionship; that life lived in charity is worth more than many words. This was true yesterday and is also true today for “digital missionaries”: to assume the synodal style means growing together, working together, learning together because in any case, one is not engaged in this pastoral field to lead the way but to help each other to serve those whom the Lord has placed next to us in a “world” that makes everyone neighbors. In other words, we all are and remain “useless servants”, in the sense that we do things not for profit, just as catechists, group leaders or other pastoral areas have always operated. The digital space is part of the one pastoral action that asks to be served with love and fidelity to the Lord’s mandate and that sees everyone animated by the same “fire of love” that burns in hearts, even when boredom, difficulties or misunderstandings emerge: “I used to say to myself, ‘I will no longer think of Him, I will no longer speak in His name!’ But in my heart there was like a burning fire, held in my bones; I tried hard to contain it, but I could not”. It is this burning fire that the “digital missionary” — as well as every witness to the Gospel — must guard and nurture, because without this fire within, one risks losing oneself and finding, once again, everything useless, time wasted.

The call for dioceses
to take the plunge

The “digital missionary”, we said, belongs to a Community; he is not a freelancer. But this calls for each individual Diocese — the Synod emphasizes — to learn to confidently take to the open; to trust and rely on those who know best the “routes” of this open sea that is the digital. The “digital natives” have an extra gear, an innate sense of direction that asks to be recognized and valued. It is a matter of accompanying their familiarity, even if it sometimes smacks of naiveté and a pinch of holy recklessness, and helping them to give depth to their intuitions, to orient themselves among the gentle waves of the digital as well as among the storms that sometimes come even in this open and sometimes unexplored sea: “We cannot evangelize digital culture without first understanding it. Young people... are best suited to carry out the mission of the church in the digital environment, as well as to accompany the rest of the community, including pastors, to become more familiar with its dynamics”.

Sent into the digital world by thinking people

In the educational and missionary alliance just recalled, we must be accompanied by the realization that it is not enough to have a digital handiwork — that is, technicians — if this is not also accompanied by a digital mind-work — that is, thinking people who help to grasp the meaning and significance of things. Only in this alliance will it be easier to help and support each other, learning together to grasp the strengths and weaknesses of the digital world. It is a matter of learning to take the good and the advantage of this new opportunity, knowing how to call by name the criticalities and ambiguities in it.

Among the ambiguities and critical issues, think of fake news or fraudulent activities; or the great battles against pollution, without being aware that online life is a source of pollution (www.comparethemarket.com). On the other hand, it is there for all to see that the digital allows one to be able to connect with the ends of the earth and reach out with a sympathetic embrace to those affected by natural disasters, just as it is a space where everyone or at any rate many people have (almost) a chance to speak, when in contrast traditional media filters every message.

The ‘digital’ good Samaritan

Through the conclusions of the Synod, we have tried to sketch an initial outline of the profile of the “digital missionary”, which cannot be reduced to a simple activity to be done, but rather an attitude to be assumed and which has as its model the Lord Jesus, the Good Samaritan. It is the biblical icon that serves as the thread running through the entire pastoral document published online by the Dicastery for Communication last June, “For a New Presence: pastoral reflection on engaging with social media”, which actualizes the Gospel message in the “digital world”.

Conclusion: ‘Your face Lord I seek’

Paraphrasing Saint Paul, we could say that “It is not a boast to preach the gospel in the digital world; it is a duty for me: woe to me if I do not preach the gospel in this ‘new world!’... It is a task that has been entrusted to me”. It is a task to help those I meet along the “digital” way to bring out the face of each person and to know how to point them to the Face to which their gaze should be turned, namely that of Jesus, the perfect Man. At one time it was said that we are not “machines”. Well, today we can say that we cannot reduce or flatten ourselves to mere digital instruments: we are and remain more inscribed in the very palm of God’s hands, we are His beloved creatures for whom He Himself became Man in order to save us from the whirlwind of superficiality, banality, distortions... of sin, to make us His children. We are children of God; this is our identity. And as children we desire to inhabit this “digital world” bringing the good news that God loves us, cares for us, because He truly cares for each of us. He is not afraid or ashamed of anyone, and even though our sin may stifle the aspirations of our heart, God is greater than our sin. As at the Areopagus in Athens perhaps we too, as happened to Paul, will not be heard right away, but the seed that fell into the ground will sooner or later bear fruit. The “inhabitants” of the digital world have the same heart, the same feelings, the same thoughts, the same aspirations as everyone else, no more and no less: it is up to the “digital missionaries” to intercept them and make them feel that what they cherish in their hearts can also find correspondence in other friends who inhabit this time and place. Sometimes not many words are needed, but the way to raise a thought, to post an image, to respond... So it was once, so it is and will be today: “Your faithful at seeing me will have joy, Lord”. At simply “seeing me”. This is the light that “digital missionaries” are called to bring, and that they are called to be.

By Fr Andrea Vena