By Novar Caine
In the United States a dwindling group of monks walked into an advertising agency and asked creative directors to get them new recruits. There are only 12 monks left at Porstmouth Abbey in Rhode Island; the youngest of the bunch is almost 50.
The Benedictine friars’ numbers are half what they were 40 years ago; it seems young men are no longer getting the calling, or are interested in hermit-life. The creative folk at Simons ad agency in Boston, a bit taken aback at first, devised a marketing campaign for the abbey, The New York Times reported: one that’s based on traditional print ads but has a heavy internet presence.
Slick videos were shot for a website; a Gregorian chant was uploaded for use as a mobile-phone ringtone; and a Facebook page was created (311 people “liked” it as of writing). The well-designed website entices visitors with this opening-page tease: “One of the most beautiful things about Benedictine life is balance.” One section asks “Is God Calling You” while anther details how to become a monk.
Comments on the cenobites’ Facebook page express delight at the order’s reaching out to the public. One said: “This is just beautiful – Thank you for sharing.”
The Vatican is also on the internet, and has a Facebook page devoted to the beatification of Pope John Paul II (41,670 “likes”) in May, the incumbent’s much-liked predecessor. The Holy See is on YouTube, too, where you can find a set of homilies from Pope Benedict XVI. The Catholic Church has truly embraced technology.
But the 84-year-old pontiff of German origin had a warning for technophiles at the weekend, on Palm Sunday, the last Sunday before Easter. He said we can do and have achieved much but remain limited unless we live a religious life – as ever, a recruitment call.
“Of ourselves,” he told some 40,000 pilgrims gathered in St Peter’s Square, “we are too weak to lift up our hearts to the heights of God. God himself must draw us up, and this is what Christ began to do on the cross.”
And that, he said, needed “clean hands, a pure heart, the rejection of falsehood (and) the quest for God’s face.” He said advances in technology “are liberating and contribute to the progress of mankind only if they are joined to these attitudes.”
The pope said we might think we have grown powerful with the development of new tools but that in effect we are weak. “Mankind has managed to accomplish so many things: we can fly! We can see, hear and speak to one another from the farthest ends of the earth. And yet the force of gravity which draws us down is powerful.”
An indication of our weakness was in the face of natural disasters such as last month’s devastating earthquake and tsunami catastrophes in Japan, the head of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics said.
And yet we find ourselves in a world that is running away with itself over technological mania, nowhere more so than with the internet and its blossoming offerings. Apart from religion, people are shying away from tactile contact with others and locking themselves into a brumal world of quips and exposure that’s comprised of a global skeleton of computers and wires. Disconnection, rather than real interaction, is on the rise, and it’s a soulless chasm.
This detachment is especially seen in the empty Western church pews on Sunday. A rejection of spirituality in favour of internet-enabled instant gratification is happening at a time when religious organisations are turning to the internet to follow the herd. “Like” us and you’ll have a better chance of getting into Heaven. It’s a game of catch-up that the holy men are losing, at least among the younger generations, many of whom are so blinded by commerce and its siren devices they find it hard to see beyond their next purchase.
We’ll see if Porstmouth Abbey gets the new blood their dying abbey so desperate seeks. We’ll see if the aged pope’s message of more spiritually based technology use is heeded. It’s likely there will be a great deal of failure. But for institutions that were once so closed and guarded, it’s great to see them opening up on the World Wide Web.