Posted by FatherTim at 8/2/2009 7:44 PM EDT
My friends,

Ironically, thanks to the power of the Internet in general and Facebook in particular, I have been able to read in my far-off mission of the remarks made by Britain's Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols on Facebook and other social networks.

The press has (of course) gleefully taken his comments -- some very well-meaning and thoughtful, and some almost comedically old-fashioned -- to once again paint the Church into a corner as a finger-pointer and condemner of anything and everything that, well, people enjoy and that the Church did not either think of first or control.

Commenting on the tragic suicide of a young teenage girl, 15-year-old Megan Gillan, a student in Cheshire who took a fatal overdose of pain-killers after being bullied on social networking site Bebo, Nichols said: “I think there’s a worry that an excessive use or an almost exclusive use of text and emails means that as a society we’re losing some of the ability to build interpersonal communication that’s necessary for living together and building a community,” he said.

“Facebook and MySpace might contribute towards communities, but I’m wary about it.”

Nichols, who is the spiritual and administrative leader of the Church in England and Wales, said skills such as reading a person's mood and body language were in decline, and that exclusive use of electronic information had a "dehumanizing" effect on community life.

The Archbishop also warned of the danger of suicide among young people who threw themselves into a network of friendships that could easily collapse.

He said young people were being encouraged to build up collections of friends as commodities, and were left desolate when these transient relationships broke down. that a key factor in suicide among young people was the trauma caused the kind of transparent and loose relationships often formed on the Internet collapse.

"Friendship is not a commodity," he told the Sunday Telegraph newspaper. "Friendship is something that is hard work and enduring when it's right."


First of all, I hope all my online and offline friends will join me in prayer to Our Loving God for the repose of Megan's soul, and that He will use His Great Love to console her parents and friends, who must be heartsick over her loss. THAT is really the story here, which will be be conveniently forgotten so the press can sell more newspapers by writing about this surely daft little old man, who probably writes by candlelight with a quill pen on parchment.

But there is great wisdom and humanity in what the Archbishop has said, although he innocently errs with a "kill the messenger" approach, which seems to blame a thought-less and soul-less bunch of computers, servers, switches, routers, hubs and wires for a tragedy, as well as for being a nearly demonic presence in the world.

This is nonsense.

Websites, social networks, emails, texting -- and any of the trillion terms I'm forgetting -- are merely communication tools, like a telephone or a postage stamp. The hand the holds the tool belongs to a human mind who can use it for good or ill. I will not list a litany of headlines in which one of these minds has used these powerful tools for evil, or for good. There are plenty of examples, and only the foolish would grasp ahold of one and make it the piece of evidence that decided the case.

There is something wonderfully warm about the Archbishop's vision of how the truest of friendships are formed and prosper. I have been on the Internet as long as there has been an Internet, and I have made many friends by using it. Perhaps better, it has enabled me to reconnect with many far-flung friends scattered around the planet with whom I had not spoken in years and was delightfully surprised when I heard from. Facebook, in particular, has given me this gift, and it was probably a poor choice for the Archbishop's target.

But, at least from my own experience in life, there is little doubt that the best and closest friends I have are those with whom I have had true human interaction: neighbors, schoolmates, college roommates, priests with whom I have shared the Jesuit program of Preparation and Formation, and those who have been my brothers in various colleges and now, in the missions. And I would be remiss in not saying that the warmth of many an Irish pub has left me with many memories of wonderful times and wonderful friends.

I would not trade one of these friends for a thousand people who "friended" me or "followed" me or "dugg" me -- or any of the social network jargon. It means nothing to me to see a small army of rainbow-colored friendship icons on "my page." I would rather share a meal or an embrace with a flesh-and-blood true friend than wear these "badges" that signify nothing.

Young people, of course, do not always or often have the emotional "machinery" and experience to guide them through a social network world where "people" are not whom or what they say, and whose motives may be predatory. Parental guidance and involvement is the best way to teach them to fly, and schools should provide education about this new world of communication as well. I also believe law-enforcement officials are right in pursuing the predators who have used these modern tools as fishermen of immorality and hate.

Social networks have enabled friends to meet, have helped those who share common problems to communicate with those like them, and are used for a wide variety of moral support, friendship, education and support of worthy causes that hasten God's Work on earth.
Of course, it goes without saying that some social networks, in which a teenage girlr's 16-year-old "friend" is actually a 50-year-old man, have the potential for great harm. But again, it is the person -- not the social network -- who is responsible for this. The Church itself is a major presence on the Internet and, unfortunately, so are pedophiles and abhorrent hate groups.

Freedom of speech has always demanded the highest level of responsibility, and, where the young are concerned, caring adults must be their guides and teachers. The Internet is a town, mostly of strangers, that you are always just visiting -- it is not a home. Although his words can be tarred and feathered as out-of-step rants, Archbishop Nichols has used a real-life tragedy to remind us of the difference between the smile of a real friend, and an emoticon.

God bless you all!

-- Father Tim