The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word

While the Bible does present Jesus as being able to read, and there is a story of Jesus drawing something unspecified in the dirt, the first followers of Jesus lived in an oral culture. The Gospel of Luke begins thus, identifying to the difference between oral culture and print culture:

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

Thus, writing supplies order and coherence to a body of knowledge “handed on” (the word “tradition” means “to hand over”) by eyewitnesses, ordering and linking events that might at the time have seemed episodic, but with the passage of time are seen as part of a gradually unfolding narrative.
It had long been the custom for intellectuals at Wittenberg to post their opinions on a church door in order to invite debate. In 1517, a monk wrote a letter objecting to the sale of indulgences — the medieval church’s practice of encouraging the faithful to translate their faith into action by donating money to the church, thereby gaining a share of the grace that flowed through the good actions enabled by the funds so collected. 

While it’s debatable that the monk in question — Martin Luther — actually posted his argument to the church door (this part of the story first appeared decades later), there is no question that the printing press helped spread Luther’s ideas far and wide; what had been local responses to isolated or regional excesses and abuses grew into a unified movement, aided by the uniform copies of Luther’s complaints, which quickly spread across Europe. (Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change calls the subject of her study an “unacknowledged revolution”.) 

For 21st-century writers who are used to composing in a word processor, the innovations represented by the printing press may be a bit obscure. Printed books did exist before Europe’s adoption of movable type, but before Gutenberg, laying out a page meant carving out blocks of wood for each page.  Editing meant chipping out a hole and wedging a corrected block in the space. The wooden blocks soon wore out, so that the effort the printer invested into creating each page could only result in so many books.

Gutenberg’s successful adoption of movable type (little metal wedges that stamp out the shape of individual letters and punctuation marks) and his experimentation with longer-lasting inks increased both the number of pages a printer could produce, the accuracy of the printed pages (it was easy to correct word-level errors, or move passages around), and the longevity of the printed product.

The same tools that aided the spread of dissent also aided the Jesuits, a Catholic order of priests devoted to scholarship and missionary work.  Like a papal SWAT team, Jesuits swept into Protestant hot zones as part of the Counter-Reformation, and they spoke out against internal abuses and as part of the Catholic Reformation.

Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005, was known for his communication skills (he was fluent in numerous languages) and his successful use of technology (launching the Vatican’s web presence in 1995 (just two years after the creation of the first graphic web browser). 

Benedict XIV has continued his predecessor’s use of technology.  While his official e-mail address ( is mostly symbolic (I doubt he starts hs morning by checking tweaking his spam filter to flag more of the messages from Canadian pharmacies and Nigerian royalty), a recent statement from the Vatican encourages priests to engage fully in cyberspace.

The spread of multimedia communications and its rich “menu of options” might
make us think it sufficient simply to be present on the Web, or to see it only
as a space to be filled. Yet priests can rightly be expected to be present in
the world of digital communications as faithful witnesses to the Gospel,
exercising their proper role as leaders of communities which increasingly
express themselves with the different “voices” provided by the digital
marketplace. Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing
the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated
features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad
new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis.

Using new communication technologies, priests can introduce people to the life
of the Church and help our contemporaries to discover the face of Christ. They
will best achieve this aim if they learn, from the time of their formation, how
to use these technologies in a competent and appropriate way, shaped by sound
theological insights and reflecting a strong priestly spirituality grounded in
constant dialogue with the Lord. Yet priests present in the world of digital
communications should be less notable for their media savvy than for their
priestly heart, their closeness to Christ. This will not only enliven their
pastoral outreach, but also will give a “soul” to the fabric of communications
that makes up the “Web”. Pope Benedict XVI, Vatican

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