Passing the Torch in New Media: The Example of St. Dominic

Across the world right now, people are focused on the Olympic Games taking place in London.  Estimates released this morning by the BBC indicate that around 4 billion people worldwide have seen at least some coverage of the Games thus far, as a result of digital media and increased international coverage.  Hearing that figure made me wonder what it will be like in Rio, four years from now, when we may assume that technology will allow us to reach even more people than even that astonishing number.

Yet just as the Olympics are bookended by the lighting and extinguishing of a torch, so too the life of one of my personal heroes and patrons was marked by a torch also.  And the juxtaposition of these advances in technology along with the example of his life gives me pause, as I consider what exactly new media ought to be doing for the Church and for the world. We need to be asking ourselves whether new media is something being handed to us, like a burning torch to bring light into darkness: are we taking this seriously, as a way to enter into people’s hearts and homes, and to change minds corrupted by an all-too-prevalent, selfish materialism?

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to this story showing how churches are using new media to keep in touch with their members, as well as to draw potential new members to their services.  The story does not list the types of churches that were surveyed, so the results are slightly misleading.  For example, how many of these churches were Catholic? How many were Mainline? How many were Nondenominational?

The fact that the article refers to “knocking on doors” as being a “traditional” method of reaching followers ought to make the Catholics among my readers suspicious about these numbers.  Generally speaking, we just don’t go door to door trying to persuade people to come to church on Sunday.  Perhaps we ought to, but it seems so alien to our experience that I doubt there will be a great movement among Catholics to go out into the streets and convince others that Rome is the way to go.

And yet today, the Church honors a great man who did just that.

Today is the feast of St. Dominic, or more properly in his native Castile San Domingo de Guzmán (1170-1221), founder of the Order of Preachers, i.e. The Dominicans.  St. Dominic has been a personal favorite of mine ever since I can remember; I even selected him as my confirmation saint.  As the name of the Order implies, one of the key charisms of being a Dominican friar is preaching, following in the example of the Order’s founder.

Although he had been studying and working in religious life for some years, St. Dominic’s apostolate really began in the early 1200’s as a result of encountering the Albigensian heresy in southern France, in trying to refute their arguments and persuade them to come back to orthodoxy. In fact the very first night he arrived in the region, which he was meant to pass through on his way to Denmark, he ended up staying up all night trying to convince the heretical innkeeper with whom he was staying to come back to the Church.  By dawn he had succeeded, and his ministry was born, with the Dominicans eventually spreading all over the planet, preaching, teaching, and praying, thus bearing the light of truth.

In iconography, St. Dominic is often represented along with a dog bearing a torch in its mouth.  This is because before he was born his mother, Blessed Juana de Aza, had a dream that she would give birth to a dog bearing a torch, whose zeal would set the world on fire.  In Latin the name of the order, the “Dominicanus”, can be translated as a pun for “Dog of the Lord” – “Domini” and “Canis”.

For those of us not called to enter into the religious life of the Dominicans, but who are active in new and social media, the example of this torch-bearing “Dog of the Lord” is something we ought to consider thoughtfully. What are bearing a torch for in our own lives? Are we trying to set the world of new and social media on fire with good content, encouraging people while at the same time refuting what is wrong? Or are we simply creating a lot of acrid, choking smoke with no light? Do we burn with zeal, or do we simply smolder, at best, and never catch fire?

If 4 billion people can be persuaded to watch an international entertainment event, such as the Olympics, even if we cannot reach those numbers, still: imagine how many could be reached through digital media, by those who can lead others to truth, just as St. Dominic did!

Detail of “St. Dominic” by Claudio Coello (c. 1685)
The Prado, Madrid

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