The challenges of the new social media.
Over the past few days I’ve been thinking about those callers I heard on the radio who did not see anything wrong with tweeting at a funeral. To me it just seems the wrong thing to do. Yet, some do not. So I gave it some more thought and I think that it may go right back to the whole nature of the new social media. Many young people today experience community and interpersonal communication in a much different way than previous generations. Viral community, typified by numerous “friends” on FaceBook or Myspace that one has never met, communicating via “tweeting” or “texting,” have replaced real communion where one actually sits with others in person. When faced with a social situation at which one is actually present to others, young people almost always pull out the cellphone and start texting and tweeting. I see it in my nieces and nephews all the time. Many young people have to connect because that is the way in which they communicate and enter into community. Texting, tweeting, and using the smartphone during an event – liturgy, meeting, class, etc., is not that “out of bounds” because that is the way they normally interact with others. In many instances, they would not consider that “tweeting” at a funeral is wrong because it is just what one does. It’s almost akin to whispering to someone who is sitting next to you. They do not intend anything more than that. They wouldn’t see it as a “big deal.” Yet when it happens, whether it is in the classroom or a family gathering or in a church, whether the person intends it or not, they are sending the message that what is happening here is not as important as what is happening there. Somehow, we have to convince them that what is happening right now, here in this place, is where their attention needs to be. Maybe it’s something as simple as asking that all cellphones and internet devices be turned off before the liturgy starts. Many churches already do this. Maybe it is necessary for the celebrant to remind the community at the beginning of liturgy that we need to make a conscious effort to focus on the here and now and to turn off all other distractions. But it is clear that we have to take this real shift in communication and community into account when celebrating the liturgy. We have to help them participate in the Church’s liturgy.
The challenge of liturgical participation.
Even beyond the challenges posed by the new social media, there are many reasons as to why people can fail to be able to participate well in any liturgy. Two immediately come to mind from my perspective as someone who has taught liturgical studies: either the liturgy is done so poorly that the persons participating cannot begin to find their way into a meaningful celebration or the person’s own faith life is so undeveloped that they cannot enter into the symbolism and meaning of the ritual. For the purposes of this discussion, let us assume that the funeral being celebrated is being done so with reverence, care, solemnity, and according to the Rite of Funerals.
At most Catholic funerals, there are guests, people who do not share our Catholic faith. There are also “lapsed” Catholics, people who no longer practice their Catholic Faith. Within the assembly, then, there are people who are going to find participation difficult because the ritual acts and words taking place do not carry any deep meaning for them. They are in one sense spectators. Yet, they are spectators at a sacred event, which if it is a well done liturgy, can hopefully touch the good faith or even nascent faith of some in a grace-filled moment. And we who believe, who call ourselves Catholic, should be ready to respond to that graced moment.
So what exactly is going on at a funeral? “In the face of death, the Church confidently proclaims that God has created each person for eternal life and that Jesus, the Son of God, by his death and resurrection, has broken the chains of sin and death that bound humanity. Christians celebrate the funeral rites to offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has now been returned to God, the author of life and the hope of the just.” [from the Introduction to the Rite of Funerals.]
“And so we join with all the angels and saints in your song of joy: Holy, holy, holy, Lord …” As a liturgy, a funeral Mass is a sacred service within a sacred space. It is an action of God’s people the Body of Christ and of Christ Himself, the head of the Body. It is a mystical moment in which the prayers and actions of the heavenly Church of Christ, the angels, and saints is joined with those of the earthly Church of those striving to live saintly lives. When we celebrate a liturgy, we are part of extraordinary moment of theophany, encounter with God in Word and sacrament. When we enter into the sacred space of the church building, we bless ourselves with water and the sign of the Cross to remind ourselves of the Sacrament of Baptism by which we were made a part of God’s holy people. Our participation in the liturgy and the encounter with the holy transforms us more deeply into the Body of Christ, if we orient ourselves by our attention, intention, and participation in the liturgy towards the holy encounter with God that is occurring. That is why the cellphones, the iPads, and the tablets need to be turned off. We need to be present to the liturgy, undistracted from what is outside of it. Tweeting would obviously fall into this category.
Eternal rest, grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. When we come to a funeral, we are there to pray and worship. I’ll say it again, we are there to pray, not to tweet, text, or email. We are there to worship God in Word and sacrament, not in Apple or Microsoft. We are there to pray for both the living and the dead, not to be texting our friends. We pray in the hope of salvation for the one who has died, that they may be found worthy through the goodness of their life of eternal life in heaven. We do not pray that they have eternal life as if this were an option. Life after death is a reality for all. How that eternity is spent is another question all together. So, we petition that God, in his mercy, will grant the deceased eternal life with Him, not apart from Him. We pray for the living, especially, the loved ones and friends of the deceased that they may be consoled by the hope of faith and supported by our prayers for them. Lord, speak to us the word of faith. So, when you come to church for a funeral, or any liturgy, unless you’re a doctor or nurse on call or someone like that, turn off the cellphone and turn on the prayer. After all, at the end of your life, who are you really going to need to tweet?