In the light of the Pope's current endorsement of priest's bringing their ministry onto the pages of the internet, I thought it might be instructional to describe what commitment it takes to maintain and produce as much text and postings as I do in the pages of this blog.
There is no question but that the up-keep of a virtual presence does require time, commitment and a discipline if any priest does not succumb to the allure of the internet. It can be quite an ego stroke to have even hundreds of people think enough of one's intellect and argument that they would visit one's blog - especially if one is feeling less than fulfilled with the numbers who regularly listen to him on any given Sunday. The seduction of letting this misordered intention can lead a priest to become a focal point for those who bear a grudge due to some grievance, perceived or real. This might lead a priest to become a point of opposition and conflict, bring injury to the Body of Christ. To this end, a strong conviction to the truth of obedience and respect is an essential prerequisite for any cleric on the net.
I myself have skated over this line and have felt the "tug on my heart" to somehow convince myself of the "righteous" of this role. I am fortunate enough to work under a Bishop who offered a stiff verbal warning, and chose not to put me into the penalty box. As my seminary professor, Fr. Michael Prieur of London, Ontario taught: in any situation of conflict with the church (or it's higher clergy members), a priest must acquiesce in obedience to our superiors and to the Magisterium of the Church. The benefit of the doubt must always be given to the church. To hold that one's writings or thoughts to be so "unique" or "powerful" that they MUST be heard, requires an ego that's very heavy to carry. "The only safe path" Fr. Prieur often intoned, "is to bind your heart, mind and soul with 'hoops of steel' to the Church. If what is offered is legitimately of God, He does not REQUIRE you to make His will known". This reminder that not all grace is active/efficient, but most often it is simply "sufficient". Thus any inspired message I may perceive, is capable of being received and promulgated by others.
I endeavor to do the same, but it is a fight that must be addressed each and every day, with every thought and idea posted.
Again I think back to an earlier time in my life when I considered delaying my academic studies as a social worker to serve for a second term as Student Union president. A mature student who had befriended me, presented me with a wonderful physical demonstration of this spiritual truth. He carried a bucket of water into my office and plunked it down on the middle of my desk. "Make a fist" he said "and stick it into the water." He then commanded me to remove my hand and look upon the surface of the water. "If there's still a hole there" he quietly said, "then you're indispensable! If there is no hole, you can be replaced." This life lesson was gratefully accepted and I refrained from taking my focus off of why I was attending University in the first place - to get an education; not to be a Messiah for the student body politic. So too one must enter this virtual ministry with humility and fidelity to one's primary obligations. Being transferred from one pastoral assignment to another is another reminder in any priest's life of the truth of this wisdom.
Next comes the discipline to maintain the time demands of of such a ministry. It is easy to spend endless hours reading, writing and chatting with people online and this can be time stolen away from our primary obligations as priests. As Fr. A.T. Harrington, a priest of my diocese under whom I worked as his parish assistant, used to say "It's easy for you young priests to think you're busy, when all you're really doing is splashing in a bathtub." As a general rule, if the "demands" of the virtual ministry impedes one's need to daily carry the obligation to pastor where he is assigned by his Bishop, then it is taking up too much of a priest's focus and should be set aside.
My experience has taught me however with even rudimentary understanding of free internet tools (such as RRS readers and Comment Moderation settings), the amount of time needed to read what is offered on the net can be reduced into a series of short 5 - 10 minute blocks of time that can easily fit into the schedule of a parish priest. By just deciding to forgo hours spent watching the television, or making use of early hours over a morning cup of coffee, it is easy to dedicate enough time to read, respond and post, both in a blog like this, and in one (or two at the most) comment threads of a major web newsites. Personally I choose to participate on the National Post's Holy Blog site. Again, with the use of various internet tools, new comments in these threads are automatically sent to an email account. Modern wireless technology provides the variety of tools to access and respond to such messages in free moments. Most of these comment postings are limited to a few hundred words and require little time.
I believe that another important element of any priest's intention to work the web for Christ, is that he have sufficient years and pastoral experience under his belt before launching forth. The enthusiasm of a newly embarked ministry as priest needs to be tempered by the realities of life, as witnessed in the every day ministry of our elder priest brothers and faithful laity. God speaks within the heart and mind of any priest as he is being formed in the Seminary through the study of the faith, but he also speaks to us through the lived experience of these ordinary vessels of grace.They often God's wisdom that is tested by years of life's challenges. Again, to turn to inspiration from one of my former seminary spiritual directors, Fr. Jack O'Flaherty, a priest should wait at least ten years in ministry before he begins to presume to have sufficient wisdom to speak or serve in a leadership or teaching role within the Church. I have heeded his advice (twice over) before I undertook this ministry, and I believe myself to be at most barely adequate to the task.
Finally, and most importantly, this virtual life must be rooted in a priest's daily prayer life. Just as some priests convince themselves that their sacramental obligations suffice as a prayer life, so too it is easy to think that time spent conversing with others and defending and debating the faith is also an "inspired" communication. The only way that a priest can be certain of the appropriateness of a virtual ministry, is if it brought every day into that inner sanctuary where he encounters Christ on a personal level. Put in the language of the evangelicals, it is through a life of prayer (and service) that we can develop a personal relationship with Jesus as our Redeemer and Savior strong enough to sear away the temptations and seductions that the internet offers. I am inspired in this by the example of Catherine Doherty of Madonna House in her prophetic vision of the soul being a room with two pieces of furniture: a throne and a cross. If we insist on sitting on the throne, we keep Christ on the cross; if we accept to share in carrying the cross, then we permit Christ to reign as Lord within our lives.
Any commitment less that this, and any priest will find himself an illustration of the wisdom C.S. Lewis details in the Screwtape Letters and bit by bit he will be seduced by the dark forces of our earth.
The Holy Father is wise in calling his priests to charge into these virtual fields. The least that we can do is strive to ensure that we are just as wise in balancing the virtual and real demands of such a dual track focus.
Keep you eyes fixed on Christ, your ears open to the Church and heart open in charity to others. These are the essential elements of any valid ministry no matter is form.
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