"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Why "Apostolate" is Bigger Than Ever

The following is a slightly edited version of a column I have written for this month's Dominican Laity newsletter eLumen.

Only this year, my first as a Dominican, did I notice that August is a huge month for feast days. To name just some, in order: St. Alfonso Liguori, St. Jean-Marie Vianney, The Transfiguration of the Lord, St. Dominic (my father in faith), St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein), St. Lawrence, St. Clare, The Assumption of Mary (which I will have celebrated at one of her shrines), St. John Eudes, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Rose of Lima (lay Dominican), The Beheading of St. John the Baptist. Contemplating such a lineup, it's easy is to feel inadequate to the mission of evangelization—the most visible form of what used to be called "apostolate" in the Catholic Church, and in more traditional quarters, still is. But Christ spares no disciple their mission. Accordingly, while we do well to seek the help of our great forefathers and mothers in faith, the point is to emulate them.

Many Catholics seem to find such a resolution presumptuous, if not downright crazy. In their eyes, saints are like tangible miracles: by definition rare, and certainly not to be expected in the ordinary course. It's natural to live in such a way as to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy. But that is not how God wants things to be. “Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Mt 5:48). And that “universal call to holiness” has a necessarily “missiological” dimension. Transformed by Christ ourselves first of all, we the laity are meant to transform the world for him. The two processes are inseparable: committing to either means committing to both. In today’s world especially, that means thinking and acting bigger than we are, by grace and faith.

The task too often daunts. Thanks to scientific advances, which have enabled humanity to improve the conditions of life along with our understanding of God’s creation, people can do more than ever without reference to God. Thus in the more “developed” countries, secularism, materialism, and unbelief abound. Even where God is remembered, his name is often invoked to rationalize violence, exploitation, and other forms of unlove. Lately, the need for conversion among the baptized, even among the clergy, has become all too evident. Those who would follow Christ have more work than ever, starting with themselves. So even aside from our natural incredulity about the call to holiness, the obstacles to answering and spreading it can seem overwhelming. No amount of virtue, talent, study, or publicity seems to make much difference in a world full of opposition to the Gospel. But what we do, if we offer it in faith to God, does make a difference. The Kingdom of God is “like a mustard seed” (Lk 13:19). Those who belong to it are small, and start small, but God gives the increase. And the increase is mighty indeed, if we would but let ourselves become living sacrifices of love for God and neighbor.

One way to do that is through the new “social media” on the Internet. Most of us know about them, and some of us use them. It’s easy to dwell on the pitfalls of such media: the over-the-top rhetoric, the opportunities for shallow publicity and self-indulgence, the threats to privacy, and so on. But as the Pope has repeatedly pointed out—see, e.g., here—the new media also present enormous opportunities for apostolate. I shall offer my own example, then generalize.

A dozen years ago, I hosted “Religion Chat” for MSN and moderated its largest Catholic “group.” From 2005 to 2010, I blogged on mostly theological topics (Sacramentum Vitae). That got more attention than I expected: attention evoked more by the message, thank God, than by the personality of the messenger. After a year in which my online interaction with people has been mostly on Facebook, to good as well as bad effect, I shall resume my original blogging apostolate. And I have now joined Google+, a new social network that, in my opinion, is better organized and has more even potential than Facebook.

Such activities are not just a personal hobby or eccentricity. Many Catholics are engaged in them, and I could here cite numerous examples with which I am personally acquainted. But to get a broader idea of how it's working in America, I cite young Brandon Vogt’s new book The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists, and Bishops Who Tweet (Our Sunday Visitor, 2011). To the extent we can, the members of the Order of Preachers in particular should make extensive use of them. Some of us do; I notice that the St. Joseph Province has quite a respectable website.

Then there’s all the research material the Internet has made available for study, private as well as public. Almost anybody can now carry around a library of Catholic classics, including St. Thomas’ Summa, in a device no bigger and somewhat lighter than most books. I plan on getting an e-reader as my Christmas gift to myself (unless, of course, somebody wants to spare me the trouble--hint, hint). Even the mobile phone I have now contains an “app” for reciting, and daily updating, the complete Liturgy of the Hours. The opportunities for living our charism in and through these new media are enormous. Let us pray and work together to take still better advantage of them.

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