by Dean Marshall
On March 7-8, 2016, Mount Angel Seminary held its annual formation symposium, which seeks to expound on a topic of particular relevance for future priests and those involved in priestly formation. This year’s presenters, Sister Mary Timothy Prokes, FSE, and Fr. William Holtzinger of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, presented on the topic “Social Media and Virtual Reality.” Presented in three sessions over the two days, the symposium consisted of lectures, small-group sessions, and feedback sessions amongst the entire seminary community.
Monday morning’s session, hosted by Sister Mary Timothy, covered the current state of social media and technology in society, as well as its impact on ministry. Asking the question, “How are we changing as persons and how does that [impact] our relationship with the Divine Person…with truth?”, Sr. Timothy noted that social media and related technologies have affected how people relate on the personal level.
Noting authors such as Sherry Turkle, Sister Mary Timothy demonstrated how new forms of communication can result in a split persona, divided between digital and real-life identities. She noted that to combat this and to ensure that social media is used in a positive manner, society needs to use it as a way to enable “better face to face contact” and more meaningful communication, rather than communication that is hampered by a divided identity.
Immediately following this session, small groups were able to discuss their own experiences, covering topics such as recognizing the reality of being a public person, how to use social media as a communications and evangelization tool, and how it can be used for recognizing the profound human need for not just communication, but rather genuine communion.
On Monday afternoon, Fr. William Holtzinger, Pastor of St. Anne’s Parish in Grants Pass, Ore., presented on the topic, “Effective Uses of Media in the Parish Setting.” Fr. Holtzinger noted that “technology will help us continue that journey of communion” referenced during the morning session. He proceeded to highlight several tools that have proved useful in his own work as a parish priest, including technologies geared towards social media outreach, website design, administrative planning and scheduling, and personal productivity.
Recalling the words of Pope Francis, Fr. Holtzinger reminded those gathered that “technology can be both a help and a hindrance.” He demonstrated that in order to be successful, technological tools need to allow ministers to “serve better and reverence persons, increase communication, [and enable] better time management.” According to Fr. Holtzinger, technology is, at its core, a tool to “help ministers journey with and encounter people.”
Concluding the formation symposium on Tuesday morning, Sr. Timothy moved beyond the present state of technology and looked to where it may take society in the future. Recognizing the constantly changing state of technology, she invited the seminary community to ask, “What is happening to us, as a people and as a church, in the way we use these instruments?”
Sr. Timothy examined topics including robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and genetics, drawing on Pope St. John Paul II’s teachings on Theology of the Body to show how to keep the focus on the reality of the human person and the necessity for genuine love. Noting that as future priests, those gathered would have to answer many difficult questions in the future, a greater value needed to be placed on “face to face and eye to eye” communication, thereby allowing an enduring respect for both the physical and spiritual aspects of the human person.
The annual symposium provides an opportunity for those gathered to examine topics that would not normally be addressed at length in the classroom, allowing for discussion of a wide variety of matters pertinent to priestly ministry. Established by the monks of Mount Angel Abbey, the seminary serves both graduate and undergraduate seminarians from the United States, Canada, the Pacific Islands, and as far away as Hungary, as well as seminarians from various religious communities and many lay students.