Josh Mitchell is a professor of political theory at Georgetown University and the author of the book, Tocqueville in Arabia: Dilemmas in a Democratic Age. He also helped with the founding of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. In fact, as a professor in Qatar from 2005 to 2008 and as a chancellor of the American University of Iraq from 2008 to 2010, Mitchell enjoys a distinct vantage point. With his teaching experience, he had become acquainted with how young adults in both cultures see life and the world. As for his American students, he has duly noted their strengths, but he has also identified the challenges they face.
Professor Mitchell’s observations speaks to the underlying difficulty that parents and parish leaders are facing today as they attempt to evangelize young people. We live in an age of computers and smartphones, gadgets that can prove to be a blessing and a curse to a nation’s faith. Indeed, every strength has a corresponding weakness. And the weakness of being more entertained, more connected and more informed on a 24/7 basis is that it can have the unintended consequence of burying the human need for communion with God and neighbor.
What is particularly new about it is that to which evangelization must pierce through. Unlike the Old Evangelization of the Apostles and the Church Fathers, the New Evangelization has to contend with a myriad of distractions that inhibit the ability to be present in the moment. With these distractions, face-to-face interaction naturally suffers. They can easily occasion people to drift into their own little worlds.
Though they may be in the same room, they are, nevertheless, by themselves. And this solitary existence where the need of the family is less felt, gives fresh ventilation to narcissism and loneliness that is latent in all of us. In fact, Professor Mitchell makes this observation:
“My American students update their homepage; they jot down and comment here or there for a 'friend,' spontaneously, of course; they all know and chatter about the latest television programs or games- and they fall asleep at night rehearsing their soliloquies to themselves, in a recurring loop that can be halted by the one thing many of them are most frightened to do, namely, involve themselves in actual face-to-face relations- not for a moment, but for an extended period...My students are more 'connected' than any generation in history of the human race. They nevertheless sense themselves to be alone.”
Just in the last ten years, our world has changed because the way we communicate has changed. I remember seeing a picture of St. Peter’s Square when they announced a new pope, namely, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2005 contrasted with 2013, when the announced Pope Francis as the new pope. As for the latter, it looked as though every single person were using the video capacity of a smartphone. Hardly a person in St. Peter’s Square was without one.
There are, to be sure, many positives about being well connected. The blessing of a smartphone is that it not only facilitates communication, but it can do just about everything a computer can. A good thing indeed! Yet, again, with every positive there is a corresponding negative. For instance, with texting, emails and the internet so readily available now, people are bound to experience a kind of chronic and insatiable curiosity. A curiosity about what, you might ask? A curiosity about the most recent text or email received. Although it is not true to say this about every user, it would seem that this curiosity continually draws us to our smartphones. And in doing so, we can lose sight of the people in our immediate surroundings. I would even go so far as to say it is becoming an addiction among many young Americans. These considerations, no doubt, has an impact on our ability to evangelize; especially the younger generations.
According to a Wall Street Journal’s article in July of 2013, A Rising Addiction Among Youths: Smartphones, South Koreans are suffering from this addiction in epidemic proportions. In part, it reads:
“Earlier this month, the South Korean government said it plans to provide nationwide counseling programs for youngsters by the end of the year and train teachers on how to deal with students with addiction. Taxpayer-funded counseling treatment here already exists for adult addicts.”
But the article goes on to give us something very insightful: With an over reliance on texting, especially among the youth, interpersonal and nonverbal communication becomes impoverished. "Students today are very bad at reading facial expressions," said Setsuko Tamura, a professor of applied psychology at Tokyo Seitoku University. "When you spend more time texting people instead of talking to them, you don't learn how to read nonverbal language." Furthermore, strong relationships require a sense of being present to family members and friends. Without this attentiveness, our interaction with others becomes fragmented, rushed and superficial.
Yet, nonverbal communication is not the only thing that is compromised. The ability to think in silence for long periods of time is less attainable as well. This is important because thinking in silence is when our communion with God is most intense. What is more, the compulsion to communicate through the smartphone has great potential to distract us from doing things such as preparing for the day ahead, being attentive to our duties, and examining each day in light of our faith in Christ. It also hinders children’s creativity and productivity because the entertainment on smartphones, computers and X-boxes are already prepared for them. As such, seldom do children invent their own play. Seldom are they the authors of their own fun. Creativity is born out of silence and even boredom, but so is spiritual growth. In fact, it is in the quiet of our minds that the whisper of God is more easily heard and eternity is more frequently pondered.
In sum, the smartphone will benefit youth- as it well the rest of us –only if they are masters of it. But if they are compelled to use it at every moment, then not only will the voice of God be suppressed, but the heralds of the New Evangelization will be greeted with increasing indifference. After all, if the voice of God is not heard from within, neither will the voice of the Church be heard from without. To be sure, the latter derives its strength from the former!
We can expect, therefore, that out of necessity, the Catholic Church will have more to say and teach about this new form of communication. And although church leaders and evangelists should continue to affirm all that is good in this new technology, they will, nevertheless, inherit the mission of having to restore the love of silence and face-to-face communication. Religion classes in Catholic schools, faith formation classes in parish programs and youth groups alike will provide a great service to youth by accentuating the need for simplicity. Not only will families and communities be indebted to this new focus in evangelization, but the Church will too.
This article is the property of the Department of New Evangelization/ Diocese of Green Bay