I remember the mischievous joy I felt as a child when I would walk into school and find that we had a substitute teacher. Oftentimes we would conspire to play some prank on this generous soul, thinking that what we did with a sub did not count. “Oh, that was supposed to be due tomorrow.” “Ms. X always lets us talk during study hall.” Undoubtedly, this teacher had seen all of our immature conspiracies and lies in previous classrooms. Yet, I had the urge to try at least one of these pranks every time we found a sub in our class. My childish mind thought that these things did not count since she would soon be gone and our regular teacher would return none the wiser.
These days of quarantine where many of us are working from home, out of our normal routine and not able to do the many things we love can feel like life with a substitute teacher. These days are some kind of non-credit lessons for our lives. We can easily excuse behaviors or habits that we would not practice in normal times. Some of this is reasonable; it cannot be expected that we function precisely how we did just a few weeks ago. Our work is probably less efficient, our patterns have changed and I am sure that I am not the only one wearing shorts during a Zoom meeting. In fact, some patterns have changed for the better. People are going for more walks, having dinner together as a family and reading more. Getting away from an inhuman pattern of efficiency and obsession with variety can reveal a joy in our hearts that allows us to hear God’s voice more clearly.
In fact, there is something beautiful about our routines, even our spiritual routines, being upset. It is undoubtedly a great sacrifice for the common good that we are not gathering for the holy Mass in person during these Easter days. We lose something when not coming together around the altar. The interruption can be an invitation though. God wants not simply our routines and our habits, although assuredly he wants these. He also wants the wild parts of our hearts. This means that he wants us to crave him, to love him passionately and for us to seek him in our upended lives. God has chosen to work perfectly through the Sacraments. But he also desires to work in the imperfections of our lives and the brokenness of the world.
One way people are seeking to connect with each other and grow spiritually these days is through a stronger engagement in social media. Seeing the commitment of churches and individuals to bring the Gospel online has been inspiring to me. It allows what previously was done in our buildings on Sundays to be in the public sphere for all to see. Friends who I know do not go to church are now being exposed to beautiful churches, the truth of the Gospel and the goodness of Jesus’ modern-day disciples. Perhaps one of the reasons God has permitted our bishops to not allow public liturgies during this time is to force us into the other ways of living our lives as missionary disciples.
When I visited Yellowstone National Park a number of years ago, I learned that fires are a natural part of the life of the forest. In fact, certain pinecones will only open by the extreme heat of a forest fire. The fires create great destruction, of course. But they also are necessary for bringing forth new life. I cannot help but think that something similar is happening in our Church these days. God is allowing this purifying fire — and there are so many dimensions here — to bring forth new and stronger life in his Church.
Greater engagement on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok has been a hallmark of this time of pandemic. One can find various ways people are trying to share the Gospel with others. It can also be a way simply to connect with a larger community. We see posts and threads about movies, politics, high school graduation photos, and gratitude for health care workers. We also see videos of cats and dogs, people singing, dancing and playing pranks on each other. All of these can be for the good. They can build up relationships, make us laugh, and humanize celebrities, priests and family members.
But our “social-media-self” is not some anonymous version of our real life. It is too easy for us to justify behavior on social media we would be ashamed of in the “real world.” Far too often committed Catholics believe it is ok to be vicious towards others on social media. Mocking religious leaders, political leaders, and others with whom we disagree, even on fundamental issues like the dignity of human life, can be excused as “just having fun” or “expressing my point of view.” As disciples of Christ, won by the price of his blood, we must be held to a higher standard. We are called not simply to win arguments but to demonstrate even by the way we engage in arguments that we have “acquired a fresh, spiritual way of thinking.” (Eph. 4:23)
Any father — human or spiritual — is called to image the love of God the Father. We all fall short but must continually strive to live up to this reality. So, too, all Christians are called to image the Christ, Jesus. We do so imperfectly yet we must strive more and more to help others to see Christ through us. This is a tall order but it is precisely why Christ has given us the Holy Spirit; so that we can make him present to nonbelievers through our lives (cf. Rm. 6:10-11). Here are three simple rules that can help us do this through social media.
1. Don’t be a jerk
This rule should be the base level not just for believers but for all men and women of goodwill. We all have bad days. Know if you are having a bad day or if your fuse is lit and you are ready to go off. A snappy comeback or a biting remark can feel good in the moment but rarely is it the right decision. In Unleash the Gospel, we are warned about giving into the bad habit of “a complaining attitude.” On social media, this means avoiding the trap of always looking for what is wrong in the Church and the world. It is far better to build up or create something good than for us to be crusaders in spotlighting failures.
This does not mean that there is no room for criticism or disagreement. But this should begin with a presumption of goodwill for the other party. Assuming the worst in someone else is a trap that will never lead to conversion. A good rule of thumb would be “will I have to go to confession for this?” or “what good do I see coming from this?” If you are uncertain, ask someone else what they think before you post or tweet.
2. Don’t take this world too seriously
The beauty of discipleship is that our “life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3) This means that we do not have to take the things of this world with all of the seriousness that nonbelievers do. We are called to make the world a better, more just and more peaceful place. But we know it is not our home. We are pilgrims here. We do not invest our hope for lasting happiness here.
Practically, this means that everything in this world will disappoint us. Every politician, public policy, and election will be imperfect. Every sporting event, beautiful sunset, and vacation (remember those?) will leave us less than fully satisfied. This is not nihilism. We still care deeply about politics, culture, the economy and our society. But they are not ultimate ends. We should engage in these conversations as people deeply invested in the good of this world, but far more deeply invested in the good of the world to come.
Two tests for disciples in this area are: First, am I posting or tweeting more about politics, sports, or culture (the things of this world) than religion (the things of the world to come)? Am I consuming more digital content about these things than I am about my faith? If you want to be really bold in this area, ask a family member or friend to look at your social media presence and tell you what they think is most important in your life based on it. Second, is all my social media presence geared toward my salvation and the salvation of others? When I (rightly) engage in discussions about these other matters, would those who see this know by my tone and charity that I am a Christian?
3. Be bold and be kind
These two are not in competition with each other. Being bold means proclaiming the Gospel — in all its truths — without fear of the consequences. Boldness is the mark of the disciples after they have received the Holy Spirit. They shared the Gospel in power, knowing that some would be offended, some would have their hearts hardened and some would come to faith. For us to be bold, we must be ready to share our faith on social media. Share your parish’s livestream Mass, share content from Unleash the Gospel, Word on Fire and other Catholic apostolates. Most of all, share your own experience of how God is working in your life. It need not be eloquent, long or dramatic. But sharing my own experience of faith is the mark of a disciple-maker … and this requires boldness.
Kindness is just as important as boldness. Our world can be cutthroat. The early Christians were marked by their love. Their neighbors would remark: “See how they love one another.” Kindness is the way we love people, even if we struggle to like them. We are committed to kindness in word and deed. It is a public witness of our faith to be kind to each other. If the early Christians could do this in the time of persecution, we can do it in the time of pandemic.
It is a tired cliché to say that we are in uncharted waters. None of us has experienced anything like what we are living through right now. But what we do matters: for our salvation, for the salvation of others and for building up God’s kingdom. It is not the time to give ourselves a pass, thinking that these days of quarantine are substitute teacher days. God has given us these days to unleash the Gospel. Let’s roll.