The first time I traveled to a foreign country (France and Italy) was in the 1990s. This was, of course, before cell phones were ubiquitous and before Google Translate and Google Maps were a thing. I had my Lonely Planet tour books and French and Italian phrase books to get me through.
The “foreignness” of everything was part of the adventure. And that’s what it was—an adventure in a foreign land. I tried to learn a little about the cultures and the people, but mostly I looked at a lot of art, ate a lot of pastry and pasta, and drank a lot of red wine.
The arrival of digital tools has made travel in foreign lands easier. At the same time, digital media have created a new world—a digital continent—that is in some ways more foreign and challenging to some of us than the countries of Europe, Asia, Africa, or Latin America.
Navigating the digital landscape
For the most part, anyone who is a Gen-Xer or older is a digital immigrant or a digital tourist. A digital immigrant is someone born or brought up before the widespread use of digital technology. Folks who were born and raised after digital technology was fully woven into everything we do are digital natives.
There isn’t necessarily a rigid distinction between digital immigrants and natives. I’m in my 60s, and I’m better at using some technological tools than some people I know who are in their 20s and 30s. The main idea to hold onto, however, is that there is a real, identifiable generational divide between those of us who were raised with minimal technology and young people who have been fully immersed in a world of digital media.
This matters when it comes to accompanying seekers on the journey of faith. We older folks tend to think that if we use PowerPoint or videos (or even Zoom, since the pandemic) to teach with, we are using technology to catechize. But really, to a digital native, that is more like me trying to order a meal in a French bistro with my phrase book and bad accent.
What we need to do instead is figure out how to “travel” to the digital continent, not just as tourists, but as missionaries with the goal of inculturating ourselves. The 2020 Directory for Catechesis says:
The real question is not how to use the new technologies to evangelize, but how to become an evangelizing presence on the digital continent. (371)
The directory goes on to say:
Catechesis cannot be carried out solely by using digital tools, but by offering spaces for experiences of faith. This is the only way to avoid a virtualization of catechesis. (371)
Connect to the community that’s already there
This is a real challenge for us today. The digital continent is a place that rewards solitude with “likes,” and it is difficult to provide “spaces for experiences of faith” that seem enticing to young people. Nevertheless, the directory says that an authentic journey of faith “requires a passage from solitude, nourished by likes, to the realization of personal and social projects to be carried out in community” (370).
By “community,” the directory does not mean a small group meeting, perhaps in a classroom. It means the parish community and even the diocesan community of believers whose mission it is to proclaim the gospel. The good news is, that makes your job easier.
You don’t have to create a community, and you don’t have to design personal and social projects for the community. You simply have to tap into what’s already going on in the parish. And the number-one thing going on in every Catholic parish is the Sunday liturgy. The directory reminds us:
One must not underestimate the power of the liturgy in communicating the faith and introducing people to the experience of God. It is therefore necessary to rediscover the capacities of the liturgy to express the mysteries of the faith. (372)
The liturgy, when celebrated well, is the spiritual version of Google Translate and Google Maps. It is a universal way of communicating and guiding any disciple, no matter what age, no matter what culture. So as you prepare to travel to the digital continent, never forget the power of the liturgy to communicate the good news to digital young people today.
What does the digital landscape look like to members of your catechumenate ministry team: familiar terrain or an upside down map? Somewhere in between? What’s one way you can connect your ministry to seekers in your area? Share your thoughts in the comments below.