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Synod’s call to form Catholics as ‘digital missionaries’ is paradigm shift, say experts

Evangelization requires reaching people in all frontiers, including digital spaces

The word “missionary” can conjure up in the Catholic mind a vision of saintly figures traveling to distant lands and enduring heroic hardships to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.

Nowadays, however, the mission field is just as likely to be found in cyberspace — a fact recognized by the Synod on Synodality, which concluded its first session in Rome and is set to resume in October 2024.

“Digital culture,” said the synod’s synthesis report from Oct. 28, “represents a fundamental change in the way we conceive of reality and consequently relate to ourselves, one another, our surroundings, and even to God. … Missionaries have always gone with Christ to new frontiers, while the Holy Spirit pushed and preceded them. It is up to us to reach today’s culture in all spaces where people seek meaning and love, including the spaces they enter through their cell phones and tablets.”

“We need to provide opportunities for recognizing, forming, and accompanying those already working as digital missionaries, while also facilitating networking amongst them,” the synod’s report added.

Three “digital missionaries” shared their thoughts about forming disciples of Jesus into missionaries for online evangelization.

Institutes for lay formation

“In several dioceses there are already institutes for lay formation,” said Father Iván Montelongo, judicial vicar and vocations director for the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, who was one of six non-bishop voting delegates from the U.S. at the synod. “I know that we have one here in my diocese. It would be a great thing in those institutions to start offering courses — curriculum guided toward that; toward learning about the internet, perhaps the nature of communications and about the Gospel.”

While formation classes could equip Catholics to evangelize digital spaces, Father Montelongo advised a community bond is also essential.

“The connection to a church is important, too,” he added. “We can learn a lot of things online; take a course; I’m sure there’s great resources out there. But it should be a community that sends us, too — and we should come back to that community. I think that is necessary in order to form missionaries.”

“The disciples went out. Jesus gave them enough — and they also learned on their way, too,” he said. “That should be our attitude — whether in person, whether online — being missionary disciples who are still learning. We haven’t figured everything out — but we’re going out without fear, knowing that God is accompanying us.”

Baptismal call

Sister Orianne Dyck, a Daughter of Saint Paul who serves her order as U.S. and Canada social media coordinator, said while specific formation could be helpful to digital missionaries, the first thing for Catholics to remember is their baptism.

“You have people who enter into the online space on purpose as missionaries — that’s their ministry. But then you also have just the average Joe, who — by virtue of his baptism — will always be a missionary, no matter where he or she is,” Sister Orianne explained. “So I think in that sense, it’s actually more important for us to form one another as everyday, normal Christians, able to live in a missionary way all of our life — because then that will translate over to how we interact with people online.”

Catholics’ remembering their baptism also should shape their online exchanges, said Sister Orianne.

“Being able to understand we’re called to communicate out of this covenant relationship we’ve entered into with Christ — that we have died with Christ; that we can live with Christ — should change everything about how we intake communication, and also how we output communication,” she added. “Because it means that everything I’m filling myself with I want to be for the glory of God and the peace of mankind — and likewise, everything that I share I want to be for the glory of God and the peace of mankind. And online no less so.”

Building real community

One challenge, said Matthew Warner, founder and CEO of Flocknote, a member management and messaging tool created for churches and ministries, is authenticity.

“The better Catholics learn to integrate digital tools into their lives in healthy, authentic ways, the better digital missionaries they will be able to be,” Warner said. “It’s easy for the digital tools to become distractions or misrepresentations of our true selves, which hinder our ability to build the strong relationships which lead to effective evangelization.”

But again, real community is vital.

“There is a distinct need for a presence (online) from the Church,” Warner shared. “But I think the most powerful evangelizing occurs in personal relationships and offline.”

“If we are going to reverse the mass exodus of the next generation leaving the Church,” he suggested, “I think it’s going to happen more fundamentally by Catholics realizing God has already placed their most urgent mission field right in front of them — in their homes, with their neighbor, with their coworker they talk to every day … If more of us focused more there — and spent less time online — I think big things would start to happen.”

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