Beams of light shine through the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Old City of Jerusalem. CNS photo/Debbie Hill

Sacred in cyberspace

By  Mary French, Catholic Register Special
  • December 9, 2022

In a new media age, sacredness can only be a click away. Or can it?

How the religious experience has changed with the onset of the new media world and a constantly evolving cyberspace is explored by Oren Golan and Michele Martini in their recently released book entitled Sacred Cyberspaces: Catholicism, New Media, and the Religious Experience.

On Dec. 1, they shared insights regarding their research at a webinar hosted by University of Waterloo’s Sarah Wilkins-Laflamme, editor of the Advancing Studies in Religion book series. Amid the cyber audience, PhD students and researchers alike listened to what the authors had to say.

Golan and Martini’s case study largely followed the Franciscan order and its relationship with Cancao Nova, a Brazilian religious community with a monastic lifestyle and a mission for producing and sharing holy media. The goal was to bring the holy sites of Israel into the live feed of Catholics all over the world. 

Rooted in the Holy Land and Vatican is a cultural and spiritual capital, and technology has placed that mountaintop in the hand of any person who wishes to see it. But the question is, can such sacredness be shared in a digital world?

“The Brazilian community believe sacredness can be transferred through media, while the Franciscans are a bit more skeptical about this from a theological point of view,” said Martini.

Both communities in the study, however, acknowledge the importance of bringing holy Jerusalem closer to the eyes and ears of the faithful, with the Franciscans even blessing the cameras and media tools before production. 

Even in this great mission, it is not simply the geographical place of Israel itself that matters as much as the preservation of its spiritual and cultural significance, say the authors. To do that, media producers are selective in what they capture through their lens.

“In the Christian imagination, the Holy Land is associated with deities and Italian renaissance (art)… it’s all mixed in the imagination,” said Golan. “So, when they make new videos of the Holy Land, it will not show Western Jerusalem and much of the modern parts of Israel, they try to focus on places that trigger these kinds of ideals.”

The Holy Land lives on as an archetype and is hardly imagined as a real, changing and developing place. Socioeconomic culture is continuing to transition with the advancement of technology. In the midst of this landscape of change, modern man’s relationship with religious tradition can be difficult to navigate. What is real, and what is illusion? What remains the same?

“The Church has been suffering now from decades of scandals and mistrust,” said Golan. “Also a sense of stagnation has been a criticism that many Catholics feel about the Catholic Church and has been giving rise to a lot of Facebook groups that we’ve been noticing as well that have been growing to try to meet this problem.”

The media put forth from the Vatican is about more than simply sharing the truth, it is also an effort to restore the image of what the Church truly represents. It aims to restore the wonder and charisma surrounding the beautiful tradition, sites and spirit of the faith. After all, though geography and socioeconomic connection are changing rapidly before our eyes, those things eternal remain the same, the audience heard.

Here we are, in an era where truth and evil have never been closer within our hands, eyes and ears. Our consumerism molds us unceasingly into new and different people, and the Church is not hesitating to try and bring the image and words of Christ into our hearts daily. Phone apps, such as Click To Pray, and social media platforms, such as the Pope’s new Instagram, are just some of the ways the Vatican is reaching out to the digital world and is encouraging the faithful to continue spreading the good word into a new generation and cyberspace.

The online event was funded in part by the Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion and is available for viewing on CSSR Canadian Society for the Study of Religion’s YouTube channel.

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