Today, we celebrate World Day of Communications. There is a story of a United Nations high official visiting India and was observing the transport system. He had just visited Singapore and was pretty impressed with our transport system. As he was standing on the platform of a train station, a train pulled in. He looked at his watch and it was 8.47 in the morning. He was utterly surprised because amidst the chaos, the train was arriving exactly at 8.47 am; on the dot; even more impressive than Singapore! So, he remarked to the Indian Minister of Transport, Sir, I am very impressed . . .your trains are so punctual! Sheepishly, the minister remarked, “Sir, actually, this train was supposed to arrive yesterday!”
As we celebrate World Day of Communications, we are aware, more so in a first world country like Singapore, that today, we live in a secular society where efficiency and effectiveness; and time management is an essential part of our daily living . . . because we are all so busy and we all live such a hectic life.
The world wide web of the internet world has changed not only the way we communicate with one another, but also our ways of thinking, behaving and lifestyles. We are no longer limited by distances; boundaries are blurred; at a click on the computer, using skype, we are able to speak face to face with another person thousands of miles away.
Five hundred years ago, when St Francis Xavier and St Ignatius of Loyola communicated with each other, their letters would take 1 ½ years to reach each other . . . So, when St Francis Xavier received letters from St Ignatius and his Jesuit companions, he would read them over and over again, reflect on what was written, ponder on the times they were together, and eventually he would even tear out the signatures of his companions and placed them in a pendant that he carried with him . . . reminding him of them their friendship . . . and how their intimacy are bound by their love for God, and as companions of Christ.
In contrast, today, our computer screens are so swamped by emails that we have to install software programmes to sieve out junk mails and detect heckers that have hidden agendas. Some are just wanting to destroy our information to upset us; others are either trying to fleece us by telling us sob stories that they are lost in some remote airports and need to borrow some money that they swear they will pay back, or still others would congratulate us for being the sole lucky winner of $250,000 or proposing that we help them transfer some $25m out of their country, and for our “kindness” they will reward us with 10% of the monies transferred . . . this list can go on . . . In the past, we need to be street smart, today we need to be “computer smart”; we need to learn a new way of living . . . otherwise, we may stupidly answer such emails and go to jail for money laundering . . .
Oh by the way, some years ago, there were some 15 Jesuits from different countries here for a Treasurers’ meeting. At dinner, one Jesuit remarked, “You know, I forgot to take out the $20 dollar bill that I had in my pocket when I put my pants in the washing machine . . . thank goodness, it can still be used. Another Jesuit immediately remarked, “What you have done is illegal . . . don’t you know that it is money laundering?!” (Good that are laughing because the social media world can rob us of such simplicities and joys of life.)
My brothers and sisters in Christ, our IT world has not only made us more effective and efficient; our IT world of internet and the unending release of the latest model of gadgets have changed our lifestyles, thinking and even moods. We are so globally in intricately connected that we have created expectations of instant replies from one another.
If we are not careful, such expectations can make us impatient with one another; we become creatures that need instant gratifications: waiting for 20 minutes at bus stops becomes intolerable; so we complain to the government; no personal response from the Parish office after two calls become unacceptable; so we complain to the Parish Priest; not having a facebook or twitter or “what’s app” account (like me), is weird! So, we are tempted to complain to the archbishop!
Gone are the days, when we handwrite our letters and stick a stamp and send Christmas cards . . . I have even come across, accidently, a monk who created a website where you can just click and pay your respects to your deceased family members. All you need to do is to type in the name of your departed loved one, and a tomb stone appears; then click again, and two joss sticks appear; then click again the joss sticks will begin to smoke; then click again and the music and chant will come on, and when you have prayed long enough, just click and you are congratulated for having paid your last respects to your departed loved ones. All these save us time going to cemeteries and columbariums because we are all so busy! So, all we need to do is to pray online . . . but, also remember to pay online! Even as our present Pope Francis is very open, I really doubt the day will come when he will allow us to have “Confession through Skype!”
The jokes and the simple joys of life amongst friends and families are getting less frequent because the social media, IT world and gadgets have made us impersonal. We no longer have time for casual chats because we need to find out the latest of what the other 300 persons are doing and how many “likes” they have received in our facebook. How often have you seen families and friends at dinner and at home not talking and relating to each other, but holding on to their iphones and texting others? How many of your kids are refusing to study and are impatient and highly strung because of internet and computer games? Is it any wonder that it is so difficult to get the family together to pray or interest them to come to church for catechism and Mass?
My sisters and brothers in Christ, our Holy Father, Pope Francis in his message for today’s celebration of World Communications day says, “The world of communications can help us either to expand our knowledge or lose our bearing. The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbours and those closest to us. . .”
Media too can do much good. It “can help us feel closer to one another, creating a sense of the unity of the human family . . . and a more dignified life for all . . . and ultimately, to grow in greater understanding . . . mutual respect . . . and unity. The internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good; a gift from God. However, we need to use our social media more effectively and more discerningly.
And as I conclude, let us remind ourselves that in today’s highly charged information technological world, we need to live a balanced lifestyle. This is none other than our need to develop a meaningful prayer life and spiritual life, and not get too caught up by our social media and the secular lifestyle and attitudes that they are promoting.We need to develop relationships that are more personal, warm and committed, and also fight the pull and temptations of social media to superficialise relationship in families and to treat each other like one of the 300 “followers” and “admirers” of our facebook.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus prays to His Father for us; that we who believe in Him will continue to be united with one another and to Him and His Father; that we will continue to have the faith and the wisdom to hold on to the gift of eternal life that He had proclaimed as the Good News. And, as the Psalmist too reminds us today, that true wisdom is to have “The Lord as my light and my help; with Him . . . there is nothing I should fear . . . for this I long . . . to live in the house of the Lord, all the days of my life.” And St Peter in today’s Second Reading tells us, “and even if we should have some share of the sufferings of Christ, we should rejoice and be glad . . . for there will be greater gladness to come . . .
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
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