By ERIKA ANDERSON REDDING, Special to the Bulletin | Published March 8, 2018
ATLANTA—The Internet. Social media. Smart phones. Technology can be used for good as well as evil—but it takes the commitment and faith of a discerning Christian to make healthy, positive choices when it comes to media use in this ever-changing technological world.
Sister Helena Burns, FSP, a media literacy and Theology of the Body expert, spoke to parishioners at Holy Spirit Church in late January and shared her strategies for using media as faithful Catholics. The energetic nun, a Daughter of St. Paul, a congregation focused on communicating God’s word through the media, said she, too, had her struggles with smart-device usage—calling herself a “former addict.” But as society becomes increasingly dependent upon technology, Sister Helena said, there is still hope. She began by asking the crowd how many people had grown up without the internet.
“I did, too. Things have changed so fast, but in some ways we are at an advantage because we know what life is like without all this digital media, and we’re the only ones who can compare life now and life then,” she said. “We’re going to be the last generation that was kind of half and half. That’s a big responsibility. We have to let our young people know that you know that this stuff is great, but we would be perfectly OK without it. If the grid went down tomorrow, we’d be fine. We might actually even be better in a lot of ways without it.”
Sister Helena’s presentation was one of several talks she gave at Holy Spirit Jan. 26-28. The Sunday talk, called “R U a Digital Catholic?,” was based on Sister Helena’s media expertise, as well as her own experiences.
Difference between reality, virtual reality is love
Sister Helena said she beat her own addiction when she moved to Canada, where, she said, people are just not as dependent on technology. Eventually, she got used to a simpler life.
“It was nice. I thought ‘I remember this. I remember conversations—long interrupted conversations with someone giving you undivided attention. I remember eye contact,’” she said. “It’s like my mind was fragmented. I was losing vocabulary. I was done.”
Now, she said, her sisters get frustrated with her because half the time she doesn’t know where her phone is.
“It’s possible to turn it around. It’s possible to break habits,” she said. “Why? Because it’s bad? No. Because we want to use it in a better way.”
The difference between reality and virtual reality is love, she reminded attendees.
“Technology is not essential to being human,” said the sister. “What makes us human? Love. Love makes us human. Being more like Jesus makes us human. Technology doesn’t even make us more civilized, does it? Because we can use technology in a barbaric manner. It’s how we use technology that makes us more human or less human.”
The important thing to remember, Sister Helena said, is that actual reality and virtual reality should be separated.
“The way to remember this is that virtual reality is a man-made world. Actuality is what God made. Jesus told us that our interior world is the real world,” she said. “Jesus emphasized so much that our thoughts and what’s in our heart is real. If we have done it in our thoughts, we have done it. What we do in our minds, will and hearts is real, so we have to pay attention to our interior world.”
The other distinguishing factor between realities is the presence of the body.
“I often have youth ministers say, ‘can you talk to our youth about media use?’ I always tell them that we really should start with Theology of the Body—because that’s going to tell us who we are,” she said. “If we don’t understand who we are, who cares how we use media? What are the guidelines—what are the reference points as to how I should or shouldn’t use media, or what’s good for me or bad for me if I don’t know who I am as a human being?”
Media can be helpful but only if we are using it in the right way.
“It’s a gift, but we have to be aware of the nature of the beast. We have to remember that it’s going to separate our body and soul a little bit. And we don’t want to live in that world perpetually—separating our body and soul to do something virtual,” she said. “Just be very aware of that. We don’t want to feed into that dualism that we’re living today in so many ways.”
The epidemic of internet porn
Internet pornography, which has become an epidemic, is one of the most common forms of separating the body and soul.
“Seventy percent of all divorce proceedings now involve internet porn,” she said. “We have to kill the shame to heal the pain. We have to get over this. We have to talk about it with our young people. If porn is everywhere, don’t you think porn prevention and recovery should be everywhere?”
Sister Helena suggests parents allow their children to use smart devices sparingly and said there are three places in which devices should never be allowed.
“I call it the three M’s—Mass, mealtimes and master bedrooms,” she said. “We can’t go on like this. We’ve got to make some changes. And it should come from Christians. It should come from Catholics. We love media; we love technology; we love culture; we love good progress. But we need to do this in an optimal way. Nobody taught us how to use this stuff—we just started using it. We’ve been using it long enough now that we need to step back and ask ourselves if we’re using it in a good way.”
Above all, Sister Helena said, when we die, we can’t take our technology with us, so we need to think of the end of our earthly life when using media.
“The best use of media here is to use it for our hereafter,” she said. “We need to use it in a way that will benefit ourselves and others.”