SOUTH BEND, Ind. (CNS) – The McGrath Institute for Church Life’s Church Communications Ecology Program recently welcomed its first cohort to the University of Notre Dame for a Symposium on Evangelism and Media to address the impact of social media and digital technologies on the life of the Catholic Church.

The event welcomed church leaders from nine American dioceses as well as more than two dozen graduate students taking an “Evangelism and Media” course at Notre Dame.

The inaugural cohort of the program included pastors, communications directors, lay ministers and seminarians. The course and program are led by Brett Robinson, director of Catholic media studies at the McGrath Institute.

“The event was designed to give Catholic lay and religious leaders the opportunity to discuss the effects of digital literacy on their leadership and ministry,” said Robinson. “Social media, the Internet and smartphones have had a profound impact on human relationships, families and community life.

“Understanding these changes in the media environment is understanding the dramatic cultural changes of the past two decades. “

Program participants discussed strategies for dealing with technological and cultural changes in ways that support the social and spiritual health of faith communities.

From individual practices of technology fasting on Fridays to parish-level initiatives focused on harnessing the benefits of technology to strengthen local support networks, the range of proposals echoed the teaching of Pope Francis and the church on the balance necessary to use technology in a virtuous way.

Pope Francis has frequently commented on the promises and pitfalls of today’s information environment, noting that as people become more digitally connected, they risk losing the ability to engage in authentic encounters with others.

The essential link between communication, community and fellowship with one another and with God has been a persistent theme in Church teaching.

An opening address by Father John Wauck of the Pontifical University of Rome of the Holy Cross titled “Analog Hunger: Art in the Age of Alienation” explored the ways in which literature helps us to deal with the feeling of alienation that the modern world creates.

By diagnosing the cultural conditions that lead to alienation, Catholic authors such as Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor offer images to reconnect with the mystery of the human being, he said.

During the day, program cohort members presented proposals for integrating social media and digital technology into the ministry’s efforts in a way that amplifies the positive potential of the technology and mitigates the negative effects.

Deacon Matthew Kuna, a seminarian from the Diocese of Allentown, Pa. Studying at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, offered advice on dealing with the effects of divisive social media rhetoric on local parish communities.

Vincent Reilly of St. Catherine’s Parish in Orange Park, Florida, emphasized the importance of the human presence for effective evangelism in the virtual age.

“The Catholic faith is an embodied faith. The Word became flesh, ”Robinson added. “All of our presenters focused on the power of authentic forms of human communication to build strong communities in an increasingly fragmented world. “

Another keynote address, “Technology and Neuroception: Evangelizing Opportunities to Shape Co-Executive Power” – delivered by Dominican Father Ezra Sullivan, of the Pontifical University of Rome St. Thomas Aquinas – helped students and leaders of he church to understand the neuroscience behind our habits and our perception and how technology can shape them for better or for worse.

The event ended with a staged conversation between German theologian Father Romano Guardini and media theorist Marshall McLuhan.

Portrayed by Marshall’s grandson Andrew McLuhan, owner of the McLuhan Institute, and Peter Berkman, researcher at the Center for the Study of Digital Life, the conversation revolved around the various overlaps between Father Guardini and McLuhan in their written work on technology, culture and the church.

Participants also attended several sessions illustrating the role of different media in the history of the church, including medieval manuscripts, stained glass windows, and the use of online tools to broadcast worship services and convene groups of people. pray.

The Church’s Communications Ecology Program, or CCEP, is a six-month teacher training program made possible by a $ 1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment that examines the ways digital media is changing lives. social, political, economic and religious and what these changes mean. to build thriving parish communities.

Prior to the closing event, CAPE attendees completed a six-week online course with professors of Theology, Philosophy and Communication from Notre Dame, Duquesne University and Mount St. Mary’s University before to receive three months of coaching and mentoring integrating the knowledge of the course. with local pastoral priorities.

The mid-June gathering at Notre Dame gave leaders the opportunity to share their “transformational ideas” with CCEP colleagues, faculty and graduate students of Notre Dame’s Master of Arts in Theology program.

Participants ask questions in a panel discussion on June 16, 2021, at the Evangelism and Media Symposium at the University of Notre Dame. (CNS Photo / courtesy University of Notre Dame)