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Pope Francis takes on social media, political polarization in new letter to Catholics

POSTED: April 12, 2018 9:59 a.m.
To lead a holier life, put down your phone, according to Pope Francis.

His latest apostolic exhortation, released April 9, is a letter offering guidance to Catholics around the world, taking aim at modern life and reminding readers that their relationships with God and loved ones matter more than mean tweets and Facebook posts.

"When we allow ourselves to be caught up in superficial information, instant communication and virtual reality, we can waste precious time and become indifferent to the suffering flesh of our brothers and sisters," the pope writes.

The 98-page document explores modern problems like social isolation and smartphone addiction, which affect more than the Catholic community.

Titled "Gaudete et Exsultate," which translates to "Rejoice and Be Glad," it instructs believers to stop gossiping at the grocery store and do more kind things for neighbors.

"'Gaudete et Exsultate' is a powerful meditation on what it means to think about holiness not only as an abstract goal … but about what it means for each of us to live holiness in our everyday lives," tweeted Cardinal Blase Cupich, archbishop of Chicago.

The letter celebrates simple, special acts, offering inspiration to anyone worried about how to navigate political and social drama.

"Oftentimes, when someone reads these papal encyclicals, they don't understand how they apply to their lives," said the Rev. Mark Morozowich, dean of the school of theology and religious studies at Catholic University of America, to The Washington Post. "This was written very much to a common parishioner in the parish."

Being kind online

Pope Francis — or, to be more exact, his communications team — is active on social media, so he experiences its benefits and pitfalls. Sites like Twitter connect him to Catholics he'll never have the opportunity to meet in person, but also to haters who despise his work.

Replies to his tweets "are often filled with vulgarities, attacks on Catholicism or even condemnations from other Catholics," America magazine reported. It's no wonder that the pope worries about "verbal violence" online.

In his new letter, Pope Francis reflects on how easy it is to be mean on social media sites, where people receive more attention for extreme opinions than fair commentary.

"Things can be said there that would be unacceptable in public discourse, and people look to compensate for their own discontent by lashing out at others," the pope writes.

Catholic leaders aren't immune from the temptation to be rude, he explains, noting that "even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned."

The pope didn't offer specific examples, but many commentators noted that they were well aware of the phenomenon.

"In North America alone, there are many well-funded Catholic sites and numerous Catholic blogs whose aim is often to slander and malign fellow Catholics," America reported.

Pope Francis encourages Catholics to be more mindful of how their online activities interfere with holiness. He reminds them to log off from time to time in order to draw closer to God and to look for ways to serve others, instead of searching for the perfect comeback.

"He's over and over again calling people to be in the moment, be present, really engage, really see one another," the Rev. Mark Morozowich said.

A new approach to politics

Pope Francis also urges better understanding in the political realm, which is increasingly plagued by polarization. Too often, people criticize social programs or policies they don't feel passionate about, rather than praising any effort to build a better world, he notes.

A "harmful ideological error is found in those who find suspect the social engagement of others, seeing it as superficial, worldly, secular, materialist, communist or populist," he writes. It's wrong to act as if "the only thing that counts is one particular ethical issue or cause that they themselves defend."

Some observers, such as Mark Silk at Religion News Service, believed these sentiments were aimed, at least in part, at some conservative Catholics in the U.S. who sometimes care more about limiting abortion rights than serving refugees and immigrants in need of help.

"'Rejoice and Exult!' is the title of the latest apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis, but it will elicit no rejoicing or exultation from the Catholic right in this country," Silk wrote.

During a global refugee crisis and ongoing struggles to solve homelessness and other social issues, Catholics can't be solely focused on abortion, Pope Francis says. Holiness involves working to uphold human dignity in all contexts.

"Our defense of the innocent unborn … needs to be clear, firm and passionate," he writes. "Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged."

Celebrating everyday saints

One of the overarching messages of the pope's new letter is that holy living is for everyone, not just those who've joined a monastery or become a nun.

His "vision of holiness is expansive, touching on the actions of everyday people in situations from family life to politics," The Washington Post reported.

Pope Francis praises "middle class" holiness, noting that God doesn't require showy displays or perfection.

"Very often it is a holiness found in our next-door neighbors, those who, living in our midst, reflect God's presence," Pope Francis writes.

Holy living involves discovering the unique ways God has called on you to serve others, a process that's easier when your phone is turned off.

"The presence of … new gadgets, the excitement of travel and an endless array of consumer goods at times leaves no room for God's voice to be heard," the pope writes. "How can we fail to realize the need to stop this rat race and to … carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God?"

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