The purpose of the gathering was to reflect on Pope Francis challenging letter, Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel), with over 3,000 Catholic leaders from around the country, and bring back to our respective communities tools, resources and a renewed inspiration to take the Gospel and the love of Christ to the peripheries.
This blog is the first of several I will write to unpack the many lessons I gained from the gathering. I would love your comments or questions.
One of the themes running through the four-day convocation was “encounter” and “relationship”. In several of the plenary sessions, the speakers and panelists often commented on their own personal encounters with Jesus Christ, and the difference that encounter had made in their lives and work. The speakers raised many questions, such as: What does it mean to encounter Christ on a concrete level? What difference does that encounter make in our lives? How can our work help others encounter Christ on a meaningful level? These were challenging and difficult questions, but we were encouraged to continue the dialogue in the breakout sessions following the plenary sessions.
At the first breakout session I attended, the topic was on how organizations can use social media to reach out to the peripheries of their particular work. One of the main points made by the panelists was: Always, always keep two ends in mind when you are engaged in social media: 1) How is your organization’s social media helping people to build relationships in their respective communities, and 2) How is your organization’s social media helping people to build a relationship with Jesus Christ? In other words, is Catholic Rural Life’s work helping to build community in rural areas, and is Catholic Rural Life’s work pointing people to Christ?
Social media is not an end in itself, but is a tool that can be used to facilitate the building up of relationships. People are longing for authentic and meaningful relationships. The challenge, of course, is that we are all messy. Our lives are messy. We don’t live up to our own expectations, much less to the expectations of others. We fall short of what we want to be, what we know we ought to be. In this imperfect world, full of imperfect people, we struggle with where to find love and meaning. We struggle with where to find acceptance and peace. Social media can be a means of helping people to find ways to build trusting relationships within their respective communities, by giving concrete examples of how others have done it or are doing it.
Reading about someone’s story that we can relate to, or hearing someone’s experience that is similar ours, can help us to figure out ways through our own particular problems, challenges and pain. Often, especially in rural settings, we can feel isolated and alone in our problems, thinking no one else is experiencing the same depth of despair that we are going through. To know that we are not alone in our struggles can help us to realize there are ways to cope and to deal with real problems. Social media can also help us to take the risk of building local communities through our church and in our neighborhoods.
Social media can also be used to help point people to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ. He is the only one who knows us at the most intimate level and still loves us with an everlasting love. There is no greater news than to know that we are known and that we are loved. Social media can be used to share authentic stories of encounters with Jesus Christ, and how an encounter has changed everything. Of course encounters with Christ are not meant to be “one and done”, but rather an ongoing and ever deepening relationship that is meant to be shared. And that takes work. It requires our willingness to go back to Mass, to participate in the sacramental life of the Church, to encounter Jesus in the Eucharist, the most intimate encounter this side of heaven; and to share the message with others.
We can use social media to go outside of our comfort zones to encounter others who are in need of healing and love. There are so many people who are living outside of the Church and will never step into a Church building. We can share our stories of how we have overcome obstacles, hurts, and struggles to return to Christ and his Church. We can share our stories of how we reached out to others who may not look like ourselves, who may feel on the peripheries, or who have been marginalized or demonized because of poor choices.