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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Celebrating Christmas in Cyberspace, But at Home Too

I bet a lot of people asked for a smart phone for Christmas this year.

My wife has a smart phone, so I can see why people consider them snazzy. My own cell phone only makes and receives calls. I guess I need to get with the program!

One son-in-law of ours seems to use his smart phone for everything from making reservations and finding directions to keeping in close touch with the members of his large, extended family and his many friends.

I consider him a skillful user of the new communications media. A number of the new media are assembled under the umbrella of his smart phone.

People who get a smart phone for Christmas could use it that very day to send a few thank-you messages to family members and friends in distant places. That might initiate multifaceted mobile conversations that involve sharing photos of each other’s holiday celebrations and managing to feel part of each other’s big day via some form of social networking.

The Pew Research Center in Washington released a report Dec. 13 on social networking around the world. “Globally, most smart phone users say they visit social networking sites on their phone,” the Pew Center noted. It said:

“In countries such as Britain, the United States, Russia, the Czech Republic and Spain, about half of all adults now use Facebook and similar websites. These sites are also popular in many lower-income nations, where, once people have access to the Internet, they tend to use it for social networking.”

I think part of the promise of our many new communications tools is to put people quickly in contact with each other. That’s a good thing for families.

Our family got its first cell phones when our youngest daughter was in college, and we wanted to be able to reach her easily.

Today, with cell phones, smart phones and texting, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and other Internet sites, we’re always only a few clicks away from the people we want or need to contact.

The Pope on Twitter
If someone in your family gives you a smart phone for Christmas, you might at times use it to receive Pope Benedict XVI’s tweets from the Vatican. More than 1 million people worldwide received the very first message sent from the pope’s new Twitter account, which debuted in eight languages Dec. 12.

His Twitter account in English is @Pontifex; in Spanish it is @Pontifex_es. The Latin word “pontifex” means pope and bridge builder. Indeed, the pope hopes his Twitter account will build bridges to and among people, and further the goals of the new evangelization.

When the pope’s account first was announced in early December, a spokesperson explained that the term “pontifex” suggests “reaching out” and fostering unity among people.

Twitter is a social network by which people, in very brief messages of 140 characters or less, keep in touch with each other during the day. Of course, it has assumed additional uses in the worlds of commerce, education and even religion.

The ability of the various new communications media to keep us in close contact with each other is important. Pope Benedict grasps that clearly, which is a reason he encourages the church’s use of these media in the new evangelization. But he also sees their shadow side.

Remaining Present in Person
If you receive a smart phone for Christmas you can use it to reach out to relatives and friends outside your home. But you can also use it to turn away from family members inside your home.

It is rather easy for the new communications media to absorb so much of our time that little is left for person-to-person contact with the family members and friends right beside us.

Pope Benedict has addressed this concern a number of times. In his 2011 World Communications Day message he welcomed the ability of some new communications media to foster dialogue and solidarity among people. At the same time he suggested that the following question should be raised:

“Who is my ‘neighbor’ in this new world? Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life?”

The pope said, “It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.”

Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, a leading Catholic communicator, discussed that question in an April 2012 speech. He is founding CEO of the Salt and Light Catholic Television Network based in Toronto, Ontario.

“One of the problems and challenges of social networking is that we no longer need to be in one another’s presence in order to enjoy the other’s company,” he observed. He echoed Pope Benedict’s caution against becoming “less present” to those encountered in daily life.

Father Rosica urged that people consider “Jesus’ style of being present to others and communicating with them.”

Jesus “looked upon people with love and compassion, and did not allow anything to distract him from the person in front of him. … He paid careful attention to each and every human being who stood before him,” Father Rosica said.

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.