In November 2021, Pope Francis sent a video message to the Pontifical Council for Culture, which met virtually for its plenary assembly. He lamented that the message could not be delivered in person as the digital universe makes everything “incredibly close but without the warmth of presence”.
Our culture is being transformed, the Pope said, by a technological revolution that at times threatens our common cultural vision, including the way we communicate. Describing our time as an “age of liquidity”, he called on conference participants to rediscover what it means to be human, learning not only from Greco-Roman civilization, but also from the biblical view of man and the woman, who can shed light on our understanding of culture. He invited participants to dialogue and learn from each other. If we in the West suffer from radical individualism, we could learn from the “holistic vision of Asian cultures”, the “solidarity of African cultures” and the “anthropology of Latin American peoples”.
OVERUSE OF TECHNOLOGY
The digital revolution has changed the way we communicate and even the way we understand each other. A few years ago I read Sherry Turkle’s book Reclaiming Conversation. She argues that the overuse of technology has made us less empathetic; likes and dislikes on social media platforms and anonymous posts and comments never force us to see the effect our words have on others – how they hurt them. This overuse, she argues, leads to a lack of truly human conversations.
Even in families, members fear losing control of their emotions and so instead of meeting in person or talking on the phone, they text each other so they can change conversations. Many use their phones to find the next best party for fear of missing out, but don’t seem to really enjoy being at a party or being together.
This lack of truly human communication has an impact on dating because young people, who do not speak in “real time”, have lost the art of courtship. In job interviews, many do poorly and feel undue pressure when they have to speak “off the cuff”. Unfortunately, Turkle has even observed parents checking their phones more frequently than their own children.
THE HUMAN CONNECTION
Perhaps we have lost something of what it means to communicate humanly because of advances in technology, but biblical insight can help. Think of when Jesus looked up at the tree and, with a look of love, called Zacchaeus by name. How important was that look! Or Jesus leaned down to look at the woman caught in adultery and said, “Neither do I condemn you, but go and sin no more. Likewise, Jesus looked at Peter after his triple denial, and Peter wept bitterly, perhaps because he still experienced Jesus’ loving gaze.
Recently, I offered Mass at St. Rita’s School for the Deaf. Even though I spoke, most children communicated through sign language, but much of the communication was in their hearts. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to communicate love and to receive love from another? We have all kinds of technology, but do we have enough love? Enough empathy? I admit that I love technology and probably abuse it, but my phone and my computer have never loved me back!
Unable to walk and residing in an EHPAD, my mother is also a little hard of hearing. We occasionally use FaceTime to talk, but nothing beats an in-person visit. She smiles on the phone, but for in-person visits, she smiles more widely. When I hold her hand and agree to have tea and a biscuit, she is happy. For many years, her way of saying “I love you” was cooking Indian food. She can’t cook anymore, but if she can give me even a cookie, it’s a way of saying “I love you”. Perhaps these words are the message we most need to hear, and hear from God all the time.
Father Earl K Fernandes is the pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola Church in Cincinnati and holds a doctorate in moral theology from Alphonsian Academy in Rome.
This article originally appeared in the February 2022 issue of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your free subscription, click on here.