Last night I was given the privilege of celebrating and preaching at the 2012 Baccalaureate Mass for the graduating seniors of Jesuit High School in Tampa. In a normal year, which this has not been, I usually, as I have mentioned before, celebrate the Baccalauerate Masses for Jesuit High School, Tampa Catholic High School, and Clearwater Central Catholic High School while handing out diplomas at commencement ceremonies for St. Petersburg Catholic, the Academy of the Holy Names and Bishop McLaughlin High School. However, this year I only had the opportunity to join the Jesuit High School community on the night prior to the graduation ceremony for their 165 seniors.
For some time, I have observed the typical social interaction of young people with each other and with others through the use of the so-called “social media.” I know it is here to stay and to argue too strongly against it could put one in the category of simply being a “dinosaur.” But communicating and living the full message of our Christian life requires far more than tweeting and texting. To focus on one or the other to the exclusion of developing those conversational skills necessary to fully convey and proclaim one’s faith in Christ Jesus requires far more. So what follows is my farewell discourse to this year’s graduating class of 16o young men. I try to make the case for expanding beyond the social media while still acknowledging that even the Church can use it. For example, look at this blog or our Diocesan Facebook or Twitter. If you have time, read the homily below and let me know what you think.
One hundred and forty characters; one hundred and forty letters, numbers, spaces, and punctuation marks. That is the limit of the length of a tweet. That limit was originally established, as you may know, so that an entire tweet could fit into one text message. It is short and efficient, but in that economy of length, depth of meaning is sacrificed.
It is not just in Twitter though where we find this kind of communication. If one stops to look at today’s media as a whole, we find ourselves enmeshed in a culture of the sound bite. News programs try to fit all stories into a segment that lasts 30 seconds, or perhaps a minute or two for a longer, feature report. Today we tend to prefer reading headlines and/or watching highlights of speeches, debates, or even sporting events. We can be inundated with information from countless sources, but it is all in short, snappy and slick snippets. To communicate the truth of our faith, however, this kind of communicating will not work. 140 characters are simply not enough.
If the apostles in the upper room when Jesus appeared to them had simply reached for their iPhones and taken a photo of Thomas reaching out to Jesus and, tagged Thomas and Jesus, and posted it to Facebook with the caption “My Lord and My God,” would the depth of Thomas’s confession have been fully revealed? I think not. The story of our salvation is so immense, that simply sound bites or snapshots will take us nowhere.
How then, does one communicate the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ to a world that communicates today preferably with texts and twitter, Facebook and Linkedin and other ways, which personally I find incredibly impersonal? The computer, the smart phone, the iPad and iPod may take us to exciting technological places but far from the personal. Technology trumps the intimacy of personal interactions.
Nearly 2000 years ago, a small group of most-certainly illiterate fishermen used “The Social Network” of their time to do just this. They did not have Facebook or Twitter. They could not spread the good news of Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit by posting a video to YouTube. They could, however, let it shine through their lives and their speaking, and this is precisely what they did.
As we heard in last Sunday’s first reading for Pentecost: the Apostles went out after receiving the Holy Spirit and told of the wonders that God had done for them and everyone heard them speak in their own language. They did this without Google Translate. Rather they did it with their actions: curing the sick, healing the lame, casting out demons, feeding the hungry, caring for widows and orphans.
And people began to “follow” them. They then did for others what they saw done by the apostles. They did not retweet their words, they told and retold their stories and repeated their actions.
So, tonight, my dear brothers in Christ and soon to be graduates of Tampa Jesuit High School, I would like to propose that you are the answer to the question I posed earlier of how one can and should communicate the Gospel in a world sometimes seemingly limited to 140 characters and driven by the sound bite. The answer has been with us from the beginning; it is, as St. Peter reminds us in the first reading simply to do as Jesus said, “be holy because I am holy.”
While we needed the words of Scripture to be written down, we will also need you to share your faith by words. Use your education to argue rationally and passionately for what you believe. More importantly, though, live what you believe.
Each of you has a unique character, which you have formed under the guidance of your first teachers, your parents, as well as your teachers here at Tampa Jesuit to be a witness to the Gospel. You have been nourished in faith, given a magnificent education in the arts and sciences, and formed in the tradition of St. Ignatius Loyola to do all things for the greater glory of God and be truly men for others. As you go forth tomorrow night from this Jesuit High School, I am convinced that with 160 human ” characters” constituting your senior and graduating class, you can and I pray you will communicate far more through your actions than simply 140 characters in a tweet. That is how you will build up a social network for the Kingdom of God on this earth.