In a pastoral letter this past week, Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia said the coronavirus pandemic has prompted advances in sharing the Gospel message digitally, leading the Church to a “21st century Pentecost moment.”
“God is with us. This is the message of hope that we want to shout from the rooftops, that we want to beam over the airwaves, that we want to put on the front page of our publications and post on our social media accounts. Emmanuel: God is with us,” Burbidge wrote Sept. 15, in a letter entitled, “In Tongues, All Can Hear.”
“The trauma of the pandemic, as well as the economic upheaval that has followed, has been and continues to be an opportunity for the Church to seize the moment…The Spirit has and will continue to enable the Church, even in a time of lockdown and isolation, to help us overcome our feelings of fear, loneliness, and vulnerability by reminding us that God is with us, always.”
The current pandemic, which has led to physical separation between people, in some ways mirrors the situation in which many of the first Christians found themselves, he said.
“Christians were apart in the distant communities of the first century, in isolation as prisoners for the faith locked away in cells and awaiting execution, or in remote communities far from a priest or the sacraments for extended periods of time,” he noted.
Despite this, the Christian community at the time remained spiritually close through communication and prayers for one another. In the same way, Catholics have found creative ways to communicate during the current pandemic— particularly through digital means such as livestreaming and social media— and to remain spiritually close, the bishop said.
“At a time when many felt alone, the gifts of the Church were made available to them in new ways,” he said, mentioning the many creative ways priests have managed to bring the sacraments— including the Eucharist, Confession, and Anointing of the Sick— to people during the pandemic.
The first followers of Christ communicated by deeds, Burbidge said, setting an example with their joy, sincerity, and their treatment of one another. They also proclaimed the Gospel with words, inviting people to join them and challenging the authorities to change their behavior.
The bishop pointed particularly to the example of St. Paul, who traveled relentlessly, preaching to Jewish and Gentile communities, debating Athens’ worldly philosophers, and addressing Roman authorities.
When authorities threatened the apostles, ordering them to cease preaching in public about the Good News of the Lord, Sts. Peter and John replied: “It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
The manner of fulfilling the Great Commission has evolved over the years, Burbidge noted, but the mandate itself, to proclaim the Kingdom, has never changed.
Despite advances in mass communication over the years, the proclamation of the Gospel remained, essentially, “the few talking to the many.” With the advent of the digital revolution, Burbidge said, the Church saw both risks and opportunities in the internet, social media, and the like, which can allow for evangelization but also bullying and manipulation.
Digital communication “appeals to the best and worst of human nature,” he said.
“The Church recognized that special effort would be necessary by all her members to use these tools effectively and wisely, so that true and accurate information would not get lost in a sea of misinformation and opinion,” he said.
“This is a critical time for the Church, beset as she is by many of the same stresses that are affecting secular institutions. Yet it is important that the Church maintain and develop the capacity to tell her story.”
This “21st century Pentecost moment” brought on by the pandemic, Burbidge said, has underscored the need for good communication in the Church across all forms of media, in order to invite people into the fullness of the Gospel.
“New forms of media cannot be the only tools we use,” he clarified. “The Church has communicated and evangelized over the centuries, using all available means to mobilize and inspire, to inform and explain. Some tools are good for mobilizing people. Other tools are good for informing, forming, and educating at greater depth, teaching Catholics to see the world through eyes of faith.”
“The Good News of the Gospel will set us free, but it is not to be marketed like a consumer product or adapted without thought to the razzle-dazzle of new technologies,” he said. “It is not propaganda. It is not spin. While the Church embraces new means of communication, she must not be enslaved by trends nor edit her message to be more popular or fashionable.”