Today we continue our regular series called "Learning from the Saints." Our guide is expert Bert Ghezzi, a dear friend of mine and the author of numerous books including Voices of the Saints, Saints at Heart, and Discover Christ: Developing a Personal Relationship with Jesus.
Today, Bert profiles St. Philip Neri, the sixteenth-century patron of humor, joy, and laughter and a possible patron for the New Evangelization.
For forty-five years St. Philip Neri evangelized thousands of people at Rome, from the poor to the popes. He buttonholed them in life-changing conversations, instructed them in conferences, attracted them with beautiful music, and mainly drew them to conversion in the confessional. Philip won their hearts with his consistent kindness and jovial sense of humor.
He became known as the “Second Apostle of Rome” because his ministry promoted a general return to the apostolic life. He is an ideal patron saint for the new ardor, new methods, and new expressions of the New Evangelization. You can get a feel for the saint’s attractiveness in his maxims, like these:
“He who wishes to pray without mortifying himself is like a bird trying to fly before it has grown its feathers.”
“The best preparation for prayer is to read the lives of the saints, not from mere curiosity, but quietly and with recollection a little at a time. And to pause whenever you feel your heart touched with devotion.”
“Imagine yourselves to be spiritual beggars in the presence of God and his saints. You should go round from saint to saint, imploring an alms with the same real earnestness with which the poor beg.”
“He who does not go down to hell in his lifetime, runs a great risk of going there when he dies.”
“In all other temptations, he who fights overcomes. But against lust, he overcomes who runs away.”
“The worst tribulation of the true servant of God is to be without tribulation.”
“Never try to evade the cross that God sends you, for you will only find a heavier one.”
“Very often the fault we commit by too great sadness when we are rebuked is greater than the fault which drew on us the rebuke.”
“Shun evil company. Don’t nourish the body too daintily. Abhor idleness. Pray much. Frequent the sacraments, especially confession.”
In 1533, after a dramatic personal experience of God, Philip migrated to Rome, where he lived in poverty. After several years of solitude and study, he sold his books and hit the streets to do the apostolic work of leading people to Christ. Ordained in 1551, he went to live with a community of priests at San Giralomo. He and his associates held conferences in their oratory that gathered people for an evening of study and prayer that climaxed in music or a short pilgrimage to one of the ancient basilicas.
Soon Philip gathered about himself a small group of talented priests that he organized into the Congregation of the Oratory. Philip’s informality characterized the foundation. For example, members were not required to take vows, but only to adhere to the gospel. “If you want to be obeyed,” quipped Philip, “don’t make commandments.” Officially recognized in 1575, the Oratory spread throughout the world and attracted illustrious members such as Bl. John Henry Newman.
Like his contemporary St. Teresa of Avila, Philip Neri was a mystic-in-action. He reported that once at prayer in 1544 he saw a globe of fire enter his mouth and set his heart aflame that permanently afflicted him. The saint did his best to hide his mystical phenomena, but sometimes his ecstasies at Mass lasted so long that the acolytes could leave for an hour’s break.
In 1595, St. Philip Neri saved Rome from France’s fury by persuading the Pope to pardon King Henry IV. He died on May 25 in that year, active till the end and celebrated as the most popular person in Rome.
"Cast yourself with confidence into the arms of God. And be very sure of this, that if he wants anything of you he will fit you for your work and give you strength to do it."
— St. Philip Neri
Read more from Bert at his website www.BertGhezzi.com, or check out his many books on Amazon.
Each year on the feast of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers, the Pope releases his message for World Communications Day. Pope John Paul II devoted many of his messages to radio, telveision, and the mass media while Pope Benedict XVI has focused his messages primarily on the Internet.
My great passion is evangelizing through new media so I was thrilled to discover the title of this year's message: "Social Networks: Portals of Truth and Faith; New Spaces for Evangelization." Instead of generally focusing on the Internet this message centers specifically on social media.
The result is magnificent. The message just went live today and even a cursory reading reveals a Pope who fully grasps the power and potential of these tools. He approaches this topic carefully and with deep reflection and offers just the right balance of challenge and encouragement.
You can read the entire message online (its fairly short—less than 1,600 words). I read it this morning and here are some initial reflections:
"These spaces, when engaged in a wise and balanced way, help to foster forms of dialogue and debate which, if conducted respectfully and with concern for privacy, responsibility and truthfulness, can reinforce the bonds of unity between individuals and effectively promote the harmony of the human family."
From the get-go, the Pope recognizes what social media is all about: dialogue (hence, "social".) These tools are not like radio. They're not like television. They're not like print. They're not about transmitting information from one person to another. They're about connection and relationships. Like the journeyers to Emmaus, therefore, we shouldn't be afraid to find Truth through "conversing and debating" (cf. Luke 24:15.) It was while they were debating that "Jesus appeared among them."
"The development of social networks calls for commitment: people are engaged in building relationships and making friends, in looking for answers to their questions and being entertained, but also in finding intellectual stimulation and sharing knowledge and know-how."
Pope Benedict's first sentence is key. Nobody accidentally succeeds with social media. You won't find any successful online work from people who just said, "Hey, we'll just start a Facebook or Twitter account and maybe people will flock to us. Sounds easy!" Instead, the best websites, blogs, and social media accounts share one thing in common: commitment. They're intentional, they put in the work, they sacrifice the time, they create great content. In other words, they're committed. The online world is just like the offline world in this way. If you want to be successful, you must devote the necessary time, money, and thought.
"Often, as is also the case with other means of social communication, the significance and effectiveness of the various forms of expression appear to be determined more by their popularity than by their intrinsic importance and value."
Anyone who spends time on social media knows what the Pope means. It's a sad result of what he calls, "the dictatorship of relativism," the belief that there's no such thing as objective truth. It typically takes the form, "What's true for you is true for you, what's true for me is true for me."
As I mentioned in The Church and New Media, the Internet helps feed this attitude. Websites like Wikipedia suggest, "Truth is whatever the majority of people agree upon." Now in Wikipedia's case, thankfully, the information is mostly accurate. But the problem isn't the website; it's the philosophy that undergirds it. If truth is whatever the popular majority says it is, then objective morals and values fade into oblivion. When that happens, the dignity of each person, and the objective immorality of specific acts, are tossed aside. The twentieth century shows the final result: tyranny, persecution, and death.
"Popularity, for its part, is often linked to celebrity or to strategies of persuasion rather than to the logic of argumentation. At times the gentle voice of reason can be overwhelmed by the din of excessive information and it fails to attract attention which is given instead to those who express themselves in a more persuasive manner. The social media thus need the commitment of all who are conscious of the value of dialogue, reasoned debate and logical argumentation."
From experience, I'd say about 75% of the comments I read online about religion include at least one logical fallacy. Fruitful online discussion demands we move past the inflated rhetoric, nasty name-calling, and unbridled tribalism which plagues social media in order to calmly and rationally discuss our most important issues.
But how do we get there? If you're like me, you didn't have any formal training in logic or argumentation. There was nothing in high school or college. So to brush up, you might consider a good overview like Dr. Peter Kreeft's excellent book, Socratic Logic. Taylor Marshall also has two great posts on the basics of logic and argumentation: How to Recognize Logical Problems in Theology and Philosophy and How to Recognize 7 Diversion Tactics in Philosophy and Theology.
"Believers are increasingly aware that, unless the Good News is made known also in the digital world, it may be absent in the experience of many people for whom this existential space is important."
I've been saying this for years. Chances are, the majority of your Facebook friends will never discuss Catholicism with anyone but you. If they don't hear about it from you, they never will.
Blogger Meredith Gould expressed this reality by paraphrasing St. Teresa of Avila:
"Christ has no online presence but yours,
No blog, no Facebook page but yours,
Yours are the tweets through which love touches this world,
Yours are the posts through which the Gospel is shared,
Yours are the updates through which hope is revealed.
Christ has no online presence but yours,
No blog, no Facebook page but yours."
"The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world, but is part of the daily experience of many people, especially the young. Social networks are the result of human interaction, but for their part they also reshape the dynamics of communication which builds relationships: a considered understanding of this environment is therefore the prerequisite for a significant presence there."
Two things stand out here. First, the digital world may be somewhat virtual, but it's still real. It's still as significant as the offline world. Through social media, real people are having real discussions about real matters just like anywhere else. Thus it deserves our attention and evangelization.
Second, before we engage the online culture we have to know it. We have to study the language, the style, and the tools. Most social media users know that the Internet is full of irony, humor, pictures, videos, and snark, all of which are summed up in it's iconic form: the meme. As the great CatholicMemes.com shows, you're more likely to spread your message through memes than through 5,000 word manifestos.
Studying the online culture helps us better evangelize it. It reveals the best ways to reach people and today that includes videos and pictures and dialogue more than long blocks of text.
"In social networks, believers show their authenticity by sharing the profound source of their hope and joy: faith in the merciful and loving God revealed in Christ Jesus. This sharing consists not only in the explicit expression of their faith, but also in their witness, in the way in which they communicate “choices, preferences and judgments that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically.""
Please fight the urge to nod your head in agreement and mentally quote St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary use words." He never said that.
But a relevant quote someone did say comes from Pope Paul VI: "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses." (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41.)
People remember how you act more than what you say. If you comment respectfully and joyfully, if your posts are surprisingly charitable, readers take note. If you're slow to condemn, quick to compliment, and respectful of even the most ludicrous comments, your witness will be compelling. I think of St. Thomas Aquinas' famous remark: "Rarely affirm, seldom deny, always distinguish." That's a good model to follow.
On other hand, if you're mean-spirited, if you're overly-sacrastic, if you're dismissive or arrogant, then people will reject your message even if the points you made were airtight. Maya Angelou nailed it when she wrote, "People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel."
Also, the Pope's advice affirms people are more interested in you than your ideas. For most readers, sharing personal stories about how your Catholic faith has impacted your life in a positive, significant way is way more compelling than a sharp philosophical argument. Explaining how the Eucharist has transformed you, or how the Sacrament of Reconciliation has liberated you from sin, is much more effective than a detached defense of sacramental theology. People want the truth, yes, but they want to see lives changed by it. So don't just be a teacher; be a witness.
The Pope's words offer so much more to reflect and comment on. It's full of rich insights. Be sure to read the rest of the message and I'd love to hear what you think.
What stuck out to from the Pope's message?
Tom Peterson was a successful, award-winning advertising executive for almost three decades. But in 1997, he experienced a profound conversion at a parish retreat that set him in a new direction. He applied his advertising skills to spreading the Gospel and the result was two new media apostolates.
The first is called VirtueMedia.org, which helps promote the sanctity of life through commercials, websites, and more.
The other is the one Tom is probably best known for, Catholics Come Home. Featuring high-quality television commercials and a beautiful, dynamic website, Catholics Come Home models the New Evangelization. Dioceses and parishes across the world have used their materials to draw thousands of people back to the Church.
Here's one of their more popular commercials:
Tom recently sat down with me to discuss his conversion, the Catholics Come Home apostolate, and how we can help inactive Catholics return to the Church.
Watch or download our interview below:
1:12 - How did Catholics Come Home originate?
3:29 - Why do you lean so heavily on television commercials?
5:19 - Newest Evangomercial featuring football coach Lou Holtz
7:50 - How can parishes prepare for Catholics coming home?
10:05 - Tom's upcoming book, Catholics Come Home: God's Extraordinary Plan for Your Life
Q: When inactive Catholics come back to the Church, what are they going to find? How can parishes prepare?
Well first of all, they're going to find the sacraments—the Church Jesus started and all the Sacraments he gave to feed us, to forgive us, to bring us together as a family, and ultimately to help us on our path to Heaven. So that's what they get, and there is no second best. That's what Jesus gave us and sacrificed his life for.
How can parishes be more welcoming? We can always do that better. Our Evangelical brothers and sisters do a particularly good job of it. The old phrase, "Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care" is apropos. We all can be more welcoming to those around us who are maybe there for the first time.
Follow Tom and Catholics Come Home through their website, CatholicsComeHome.org and also through Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
And be sure to pre-order Tom's new book which launched in February, Catholics Come Home: God's Extraordinary Plan for Your Life.
What do you like most about Catholics Come Home?
Their newest commercial, which was just announced today, is specifically designed for college football bowl week. It features legendary football coach Lou Holtz delivering a pep-talk encouraging people to chase the ultimate goal: heaven. It will air several times on national TV, ending with the BCS championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame. The commercial is expected to reach 70 million households.
Watch it below and learn more at CatholicsComeHome.org.