As often happens on a campus with strong religious ties, the commencement speaker began with a personal story about life and faith -- with a hint of the miraculous.
The speaker flashed back to a specific date -- March 27, 1975 -- when he had flunked out of college and was poised to enlist in the U.S. Army. Then, during a visit to his mother's beauty parlor, a woman he didn't know gazed into his eyes and demanded that someone bring her a pen.
"I have a prophecy," she said, writing out key details. She told him: "Boy, you are going to travel the world and speak to millions of people."
That's the kind of thing Pentecostal Christians say to future preachers all the time. But in this case she was talking to Denzel Washington, a future Hollywood superstar. The key, he recently told 218 graduates at Dillard University in New Orleans, is that her words rang true.
"I have traveled the world and I have spoken to millions of people. But that's not the most important thing," said the 60-year-old Washington, who received an honorary doctorate in the ceremony. "What she told me that day has stayed with me ever since.
"I've been protected. I've been directed. I've been corrected. I've kept God in my life and He's kept me humble. I didn't always stick with him, but he's always stuck with me. … If you think you want to do what you think I've done, then do what I've done. Stick with God."
Then, in a short speech that sounded more like a sermon, Washington pounded home his main point -- speaking slowly to stress each word.
"Put. God. First," he said, in a video that went viral online. "Put God first in everything you do. Everything that you think you see in me, everything that I've accomplished, everything you think that I have, and I have a few things, everything that I have is by the grace of God. Understand that. It's a gift."
The son of a Pentecostal pastor, Washington has become more open about his faith as an adult, especially since the 1996 movie "The Preacher's Wife," in which he played an angel -- Cary Grant's role in the 1947 classic "The Bishop's Wife -- sent to save a workaholic minister's marriage. Today, Washington and his wife Pauletta attend the giant West Angeles Church of God in Christ, in Los Angeles.
Meeting with journalists in 2010, he described how he seeks moral and biblical themes in his movies to link his work and his faith. After his first reading of "Training Day" -- the film for which he won the best actor Oscar, playing the corrupt detective Alonzo Harris -- Washington wrote, "the wages of sin is death" on the title page.
Whatever they pursue in life, the actor encouraged the Dillard graduates to "fail big" and be willing to "take chances -- professionally" while pursuing goals they are passionate about. However, he warned that in this "text, tweet, twerk world that you've grown up in" it's easy to confuse mere activity with the discipline and consistency required to reach goals.
Also, success will never be enough in life, he warned, because "you will never see a U-Haul behind a hearse. I don't care how much money you make, you can't take it with you. The Egyptians tried it. They got robbed. … It's not how much you have, it's what you do with what you have."
True joy and ultimate success, he stressed, is found in helping others. Thus, he included this simple, but symbolic piece of advice.
"I pray that you put your slippers way under your bed tonight, so that when you wake up in the morning you have to get on your knees to reach them," he said. "While you're down there, say thank you -- for grace. Thank you for mercy. Thank you for understanding. Thank you for wisdom. Thank you for parents. Thank you for love. Thank you for kindness. …
"Say thank you in advance for what's already yours. That's how I try to live my life," he added. When success comes, it's important to "reach back, pull someone else up. … Don't just aspire to make a living, aspire to make a difference."
It was another ordination rite in St. Peter's Basilica and the pope was expected to stay close to the ritual book during the homily.
Then again, Pope Francis has a way of expanding the script. Off the cuff, he offered the new shepherds some blunt advice about preaching -- do not bore the sheep.
"Let this be the nourishment of the People of God, that your sermons are not boring, that your homilies reach people's hearts because they come from your heart, because what you say to them is what you carry in your heart," he said, in one translation of remarks on the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.
But if priests share from their own experiences, added Francis, their actions must match their words, because "examples edify, but words without examples are empty words, they are just ideas that never reach the heart and, in fact, they can harm. They are no good!"
Pope Francis has, on a number of occasions, discussed how Catholic priests can become more effective communicators. Before becoming pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglia of Argentina was already concerned about the effectiveness of his priests -- during an era in which charismatic evangelical preachers radically changed Latin America.
During another recent Vatican rite -- marking the release of an official Homiletic Directory offering guidance for clergy -- Archbishop Arthur Roche urged priests to grasp the importance of the sermon's strategic location in the center of the Mass.
The homily "plays an important role in fostering the devout, active and conscious participation of the people of God. The homily is not an intermission in the middle of Mass -- it is, rather, something intimately connected with the Word of God and with the specific group of people gathered to celebrate the Eucharist," said Roche.
"For the bishop and the priest -- especially the parish priest -- the preaching of the homily is one of the principal ways in which he carries out his ministry of teaching. It is his privilege and duty, received in a special way in Holy Orders, to … help his hearers embrace in their hearts the word that transforms the lives of those who put it into practice."
The sermon is far too important, he added, for priests to simply step into the pulpit after a busy week's work and make some off-the-cuff remarks.
"As a general rule, the homily should not be improvised," said Archbishop Roche, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. "The church expects the preacher to continually rekindle in his mind and heart those things that are necessary for this task. He must have a solid understanding of Catholic doctrine; he must be familiar with the liturgical books and the context of the liturgical season; he must cultivate the skills necessary for good communication; he must strive to understand the needs of this particular community that is gathered in prayer."
Clearly the stakes are high, with the modern priest being urged to be intellectually solid, while also delivering words that are personal, heartfelt and never boring. He must speak "from the heart," yet without resorting to casual improvisation. In his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium ("The Joy of the Gospel"), Pope Francis also noted that the "homily cannot be a form of entertainment like those presented by the media."
This is a challenge. Nevertheless, it's crucial that priests use this strategic opportunity to help the faithful connect the Bible with their daily lives, stressed Father James Martin, author of "Jesus: A Pilgrimage" and known as the "official chaplain" who helps with the work of comedian Stephen Colbert.
"I've heard my fair share of dull homilies and they not only bore me, but anger me," said Martin. "Most people have only one chance to hear about scripture during the week and the preacher has only one chance to reach them. So boring should never be an option. Boring is, frankly, inexcusable."
At the same time, the pope's insistence that priests not be boring is not the same thing as saying, "Be a comedian," he stressed. "Rather, it means that Jesus's words and deeds are never, ever boring. So when we talk about the Gospels we need to convey the same urgency and excitement that the disciples felt when they were around Jesus."
Looking at women's lives worldwide, Hillary Clinton is convinced that faith offers strength and hope to many, while "deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases" continue to oppress others.
The Democratic presidential candidate cited her own Methodist heritage as an example of positive faith during the recent Women in the World Summit in New York City. But religion's dark side, she said, is easily seen when doctrines limit access to "reproductive health care" and cause discrimination against gays and the transgendered.
In the future, she stressed, politicians will need to force religious leaders to change these ancient teachings to fit modern laws.
"Far too many women are still denied critical access to reproductive health," said Clinton, focusing on issues she emphasized as secretary of state.
"All the laws that we've passed don't count for much if they're not enforced. Rights have to exist in practice, not just on paper. Laws have to be backed up with resources and political will and deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs and structural biases have to be changed."
The Kennedy Center crowd responded with cheers and applause.
Religious dogma doesn't just cause trouble in "far-away countries," she added. Referring to ongoing debates about religious liberty, Clinton said, "America moves ahead when all women are guaranteed the right to make their own health care choices, not when those choices are taken away by an employer like Hobby Lobby."
No one was surprised that Clinton -- a faithful defender of abortion rights -- renewed her support for Planned Parenthood and the sexual revolution, noted William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. The shock in this speech was her commitment to using political power to force changes in pulpits, pews and religious hierarchies.
"It's time for Hillary to take the next step and tell us exactly what she plans to do about delivering on her pledge," he said, in an online commentary. "Not only would practicing Catholics like to know, so would Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews, Muslims and all those who value life from conception to natural death."
Candidate Clinton's commitment to First World solutions to problems faced by women worldwide also represent the mirror image of off-the-cuff remarks earlier this year by Pope Francis. Speaking to Catholics leaders gathered in Manila, he urged them not to compromise when threatened by global forces representing a new "ideological colonization that tries to destroy the family."
This pressure to change traditions and culture, he said, "comes from outside and that's why I call it a colonization. Let us not lose the freedom to take forward the mission God has given us, the mission of the family. And just as our peoples were able to say in the past 'No' to the period of colonization, as families we have to be very wise and strong to say 'No' to any attempted ideological colonization that could destroy the family."
In addition to natural disasters and economic challenges caused by globalization, Pope Francis warned that the traditional family is "also threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life."
Demographic changes will almost certainly pour fuel on these same cultural fires, according to recent surveys by the Pew Research Center. While secularists, the vaguely spiritual and "nones" -- people claiming no religious tradition -- are on the rise in America, Japan and parts of Europe, the percentage of religious believers is growing in the rest of the world.
It will be impossible to avoid a collision between these two radically different approaches to life, said commentator Kathy Schiffer of Ave Maria Radio.
"There are powerful people -- like Hillary Clinton -- who have a very specific ideology when it comes to solving the world's problems, a set of solutions that she is totally sure is in the best interests of women everywhere," said Schiffer. "If you go into a country facing poverty and hunger and disease, then the first thing you need to do is take them birth control and start talking about abortion. …
"This is exactly what the pope is talking about when he warns against a new kind of colonization that tries to force people to change their religious beliefs when it comes to marriage and family and children."
GetReligion podcast on this topic: An Orthodox priest's refusal to require and sign marriage licenses.
Father Patrick Henry Reardon's note to his flock at All Saints Orthodox Church was short and simple -- yet a sign of how complicated life is becoming for traditional religious believers.
"Because the State of Illinois, through its legislature and governor's office, has now re-defined marriage, marriage licenses issued by agencies of the State of Illinois will no longer be required (or signed) for weddings here at All Saints in Chicago," he wrote, in the parish newsletter.
The key words were "or signed." The veteran priest was convinced that he faced a collision between an ancient sacrament and new political realities that define a civil contract. Reardon said he wasn't trying to "put my people in a tough spot," but to note that believers now face complications when they get married -- period.
The question priests must ask, when signing marriage licenses, is "whether or not you're acting on behalf of the state when you perform that rite. It's clear as hell to me that this is what a priest is doing," said Reardon, reached by telephone.
"Lay people don't face the sacramental question like a priest. They are trying to obtain the same civil contract and benefits as anyone else and they have to get that from the state. It's two different moral questions."
This is a timely question, as the U.S. Supreme Court nears a crossroads on same-sex marriage. The issue of whether clergy should clip this tie to the state is one that is causing tensions -- not just between doctrinal liberals and conservatives -- but also between those with differing views of the theology of marriage and approaches to current political realities.
In a recent LifeWay Research survey, six in 10 Americans disagreed with the statement that "marriage should be defined and regulated by the state" and 49 percent agreed that, "Religious weddings should not be connected to the state's definition and recognition of marriage." However, 71 percent of pastors disagreed with the statement, "Clergy should no longer be involved in the state's licensing of marriage."
At the conservative journal First Things, 444 clergy and lay leaders had, as of earlier this week, signed "The Marriage Pledge" promising: "We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings."
These debates are about "strategy and timing, not … faithfulness," stressed evangelical activist John Stonestreet, at BreakPoint.org. Clergy will know it's time to exit the "civil marriage business" -- when they are forced out.
"Stay in the game! … Refuse to render to Caesar authority that does not belong to him," he argued. "Get censured! Get sued! Be nice and kind, but firm; keep the witness as long as you can."
The Rev. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention recently wrote that any church that embraces the sexual revolution is "no longer a church of Jesus Christ." Yet a pastor who signs a marriage license is "not affirming the state's definition of marriage," he argued, but bearing witness to "the state's role in recognizing marriage as something that stands before and is foundational to society."
This topic is sure to be discussed as clergy and activists gather in Washington, D.C., for the April 25th March for Marriage. Reardon noted that his church's national leader, while not directly addressing the marriage-license issue, sent a pastoral letter to his bishops, clergy and laypeople noting that marriage debates cannot be avoided.
The upcoming Supreme Court decision could "mark a powerful affirmation of marriage between one man and one woman … or it can initiate a direction which the Holy Orthodox Church can never embrace," stated Metropolitan Joseph, of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. "Throughout the history of our faith our Holy Fathers have led the Orthodox laity" to unite to "preserve the faith against heresy from within, and against major threats from societies from without."
At his altar, said Reardon, this means, "I cannot represent the State of Illinois anymore. … I'm not making a political statement. I'm making a theological statement."
Voters at the Toronto International Film Festival created a stir in 2006 when they gave the long-shot drama "Bella" the People's Choice Award, a prestigious salute that often precedes Oscar nominations.
Then critics began focusing on a key detail: The unmarried waitress at the heart of the indie flick's plot struggles to decide whether to have an abortion, but then decides not to after being befriended by Jose, a former soccer star with a complex, tragic past. Also, the film was drawing public support from pro-life groups, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Was this a "Christian," or even "anti-abortion" movie? Meanwhile, a New York Times review called "Bella" a "mediocre cup of mush" and an "urban fairy tale."
"The minute someone wrote that this was a 'pro-life' movie, there were some people who set out to destroy it," said Eduardo Verastegui, who played Jose. "We saw 'Bella' as a movie about faith and family in Latino communities and the importance of relationships built on respect. … But soon people were talking about the labels, instead of our movie."
Now the same creative team is back with "Little Boy," an indie film about faith, family, friendship and the ties that bind, along with one or two near-miraculous plot twists. Once again, writer-director Alejandro Monteverde, actor-producer Verastegui and other "Bella" veterans are headed into the tense territory that divides theater seats and sanctuary pews. "Little Boy" hits theaters on April 25, after early screenings backed by churches, veterans groups and nonprofits that help the poor and homeless.
This parable, set in a small California town during World War II, centers on a boy who seeks divine intervention when his soldier father is captured and sent to a Japanese prison camp. In a pivotal scene, the "little boy" asks his priest: "How could I get bigger faith?" Rather than promising a miracle, Father Oliver, played by Oscar-nominee Tom Wilkinson, gives him an "ancient list" of good deeds that help build faith.
"For centuries people believed that if you do this list it'll make your faith powerful," says the priest. "This is what you have to do: feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit those in prison, clothe the naked …"
"Naked?" the boy responds.
"Visit the sick, and bury the dead," adds the priest.
The "Little Boy" cast includes Wilkinson, Oscar-nominee Emily Watson, Kevin "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" James, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Verastegui and other mainstream actors. However, critics will surely note that its executive producers include Roma "Touched by an Angel" Downey and her husband Mark Burnett, best known as the powers behind the 2013 television miniseries "The Bible" and the current "A.D. The Bible Continues." Also, Monteverde and Verastegui work through a production company called Metanoia Films. The ancient Greek word "metanoia" refers to life changes inspired to repentance and spiritual conversion.
Verastegui stressed that there is no need to deny the role that faith plays in this film and in the lives of some of its creators. The question is whether mainstream artists today can -- as they did in Hollywood's past -- make family-friendly movies about these kinds of stories without being stuck with a "Christian movie" label that many view as limiting, if not a cultural curse.
"We see this as an American story, with a universal message, that happens to have been made by Mexicans," said Verastegui, the son of a sugar-cane farmer near Xicotencatl, a village in northern Mexico. The movie is "almost a tribute to that whole Norman Rockwell side of America. … If people have to label this movie, they can start there."
Test screenings have been good, he said, and that includes the kind of spiritual reactions that don't show up in endorsement quotes in advertisements.
"You may hear from someone who says, 'This movie helped me forgive my father.' Or maybe its, 'This movie made me want to spend more time with my family,' or 'This movie helped me decide to keep my baby,' or 'This movie made me want to help the poor and the needy.'
"If people are going to say things like that after seeing this film, then thanks be to God. That will be our Oscar. … We are very open about our goals. We want to tell a story that brings some healing and unity and hope and charity. That's the deal."
Msgr. Daniel S. Hamilton recognizes a source of doctrinal authority when he sees one -- which is why he pays such close attention to The New York Times.
The 83-year-old priest often feels the urge to respond to the Gray Lady and, rather than limiting himself to sermons from a pulpit, he keeps pounding out letters to the editor -- roughly 330 since his first on July 19, 1961.
"I am a citizen, I am a Christian, I am a Catholic and I am priest," said Hamilton, who is pastor emeritus of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Lindenhurst, N.Y. These letters are part of "defending the faith in our day and age. You have to keep saying that there is a profound moral and ethical angle to all of life and certainly to the stories and editorials printed in the Times."
While he frequently disagrees with the Times, the monsignor said it's crucial for the church to take journalism seriously. The bottom line: Hamilton believes more clergy should demonstrate their respect for journalists by reading their work carefully and then arguing with them -- on the record.
To which I say, "Amen." As of this week, I have been writing this syndicated "On Religion" column for 27 years and I have heard from many angry professionals on both sides of the tense wall between church and Fourth Estate. This was especially true when I taught in a seminary in Denver, before I began teaching journalism in Christian colleges. We urgently need dialogue.
Tragically, it appears these tensions are getting worse, creating a giant, two-sided blind spot inside the First Amendment.
Consider that recent Times column by Frank Bruni entitled, "Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana." He stressed that it's time for traditional faiths to change their doctrines and that they "must be made" to do so.
"Homosexuality and Christianity don't have to be in conflict in any church anywhere," argued Bruni. "That many Christians regard them as incompatible is understandable, an example not so much of hatred's pull as of tradition's sway. … But in the end, the continued view of gays, lesbians and bisexuals as sinners is a decision. It's a choice. It prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since -- as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing."
For Hamilton, this demonstrates the "relativist" worldview he describes in his book, "Jousting With The New York Times 1961-2014: Worldviews in Radical Conflict." While the editors appear to believe that there is "good religion" as well as "bad religion," he said, the key is that they attack those who defend "absolute, transcendent" doctrines about moral issues.
At the Times, "truth is not eternal -- it's constantly evolving," said Hamilton. In particular, the editors "believe that sexual morality has changed and that this is a good thing. Their ultimate standard is a radical individualism" that trumps all other arguments.
Meanwhile, he said, these same editors often seem to endorse, and even praise, some absolutes. In a Sept. 22, 1980, letter he noted: "What would you say if the issue, instead of 'abortion rights,' were slavery rights, segregation rights, euthanasia rights, sterilization-of-the-weak rights or genocide-of-the-Jews rights? But, you reply, no political candidate is supporting any such enormity or the funding thereof! At the moment, no; in the past, yes."
In an unpublished Feb. 19, 1993 letter, the monsignor noted: "Acclaimed as moral prophets when they declare Church teachings on, and actively campaign against, racism, anti-Semitism and social and economic injustice, Catholic clergy are severely criticized (by some) as 'politickers' and 'lobbyists' when they declare Church teaching on, and actively resist, policies that promote abortion, fornication and homosexual activity."
Hamilton keeps writing letters, while encouraging others -- especially young priests -- to interact with journalists. Unfortunately, many appear to be "too busy to pay attention," even when dealing with highly influential newsrooms.
"Some will say, 'Who cares what The New York Times is saying?' They just don't realize how important the Times is when it comes to shaping the world we live in," he said. "The church must continue this struggle. … We can't fall silent. We have to let them know that we have principled, consistent views on public issues and that we are not going to go away."
All pastors know that there are legions of "Easter Christians" who make it their tradition to dress up once a year and touch base with God.
What can pastors do? Not much, said the late, great church-management guru Lyle Schaller, while discussing these red-letter days on the calendar. Rather than worrying about that Easter crowd, he urged church leaders to look for new faces at Christmas.
The research he was reading said Christmas was when "people are in pain and may walk through your doors after years on the outside," he said, in a mid-1980s interview. Maybe they don't know, after a divorce, what to do with their kids on Christmas Eve. Maybe Christmas once had great meaning, but that got lost somehow. The big question: Would church regulars welcome these people?
"Most congregations say they want to reach out to new people, but don't act like it," said Schaller. Instead, church people see days like Easter and Christmas as "intimate, family affairs … for the folks who are already" there, he said, sadly. "They don't want to dilute the mood with strangers."
It was classic Schaller advice, the kind he offered to thousands of congregations during his decades as a physician willing to work with bodies of believers -- if they were willing to admit they had problems. Ask him about Easter and he would talk about Christmas, if his research pointed him in that direction.
Schaller died on March 18 in Oklahoma City, at the age of 91. As a United Methodist, he was known for his work with America's older, declining mainline churches, but he was also popular in evangelical megachurches. Between his 55 books -- such as "The Change Agent" and "The Ice Cube is Melting" -- and countless articles, he published around 3 million words.
A master of edgy sound bites, Schaller had a seminary degree as well as a graduate degree in city planning and he constantly connected these two sides of his intellect. The result was a kind of "sanctified pragmatism," said the Rev. Harold Bales, who for years led what Southerners call "tall steeple" United Methodist churches. Bales also worked on his denomination's General Boards of Evangelism and Discipleship -- key issues for Schaller.
"He was a great planner and knew how to prioritize among positive values," noted Bales. As a strategic thinker, Schaller "drew insights from a broad universe of data and distilled them into simple and usable ideas. … A person with strong faith, a good theological footing, high energy and a pocket full of Schallerisms could get a church moving."
Anyone who knew Schaller knew that he constantly asked leaders to face one essential question: "What year is it?"
"Most of our churches -- as organizations -- are living in the past when it comes to how they handle the changes taking place all around them," said the Rev. Scott Field, who was Schaller's pastor for a decade in Naperville, Ill., starting in the mid-1990s. "Many of our pastors think that it's still 1955 and that if next year 1956, then they're read for that. Then there are pastors who still think it's 1965. …
"Lyle was always looking toward the future. If he was talking to church people today the main thing he would be trying to get them to face is that next year is 2016, whether they like it or not."
Ironically, Schaller became known as a church fix-it man during an era in which America's mainline flocks endured staggering losses in their pews. His own United Methodist Church now has less than 7.3 million members, a decline of more than one-third since its glory days in the 1960s.
Being hailed as a "United Methodist church-growth expert," Schaller once quipped, was rather like being called an expert in "military intelligence." Truth is, some people are afraid of growth and change. His goal, he told me, was to find leaders who would face tough questions and then not "go into denial" when he proposed answers.
For example, if church leaders want to be evangelistic, he said, that requires knowing what they believe about salvation. To talk about salvation, they must be of one mind on issues of sin, repentance and forgiveness. That's hard for some modern clergy.
"I heard Lyle say it many times," said Field. "If you really know what your mission is, then you don't have to be afraid of the future."
It would be hard to live closer to the belly of the high-tech beast than Menlo Park in Northern California's Silicon Valley.
Close to Stanford University? Check. A highway exchange or two from the Apple mother ship? Check. Not that far from Googleplex? Check. It's the kind of home base from which an Opus Dei (Latin for "Work of God") priest -- with the organization's emphasis on leadership among laypeople as well as clergy -- can lecture, as Father C. John McCloskey recently quipped, to "300 actual and would-be Techies and Masters of the Universe."
It's also an interesting place to hear lots of confessions as Catholics near the end of Lent and prepare for Holy Week and then Easter, which is April 5th this year for Western churches. Eastern Orthodox churches use the older Julian calendar and will celebrate Pascha (Easter) on April 12th.
"One thing we stress during Lent is a sense of detachment from the things of this world," said McCloskey, an apologist and evangelist in Washington, D.C., and Chicago before this West Coast move. "We even do this with good things, if they've become temptations. It can be a kind of food or it can be alcohol. It can be other good things, like running and being obsessed with your health. …
"But if you can't be happy living without something, then that tells you something. It tells you that this thing is using you, rather than you using it."
But what if this good thing is woven into most of the details of daily life? In this case, McCloskey is talking about his trusty Apple laptop and iPhone. After all there is a smartphone app he often uses to pray the Liturgy of the Hours and his computer is crucial to his writing and "distance learning" teaching. And how big is that Twitter account -- @Pontifex -- used by Pope Francis? The English tweets alone currently reach 5,747,028.
Yet when hearing confessions, the priest said he is becoming increasingly aware of how -- for many people -- these doors into cyberspace also serve as links to pornography, violent video games that are truly addictive, social-media sites that provide gossip more than useful information and wave after wave of emails that seem to bury exhausted users in busywork.
Perhaps this is why, in this year's OpenBible.info study of what Twitter users planned to give up for Lent, the Top 30 items included Twitter itself at No. 3, as well as "social networking," "Facebook," "Netflix" and "Instagram." Apparently, no one thought it was possible to give up email.
Church leaders must wrestle with these technological ties that bind or they are not being honest about the real lives of real people, stressed McCloskey. Thus, in an online "The Catholic Thing" commentary and in a telephone interview, he offered suggestions to help believers evaluate their high-tech lives. Priests may want to ponder these issues in sermons, he said. The list included:
* First, there are issues of time, he said. "On average, how much time you spend online and watching television?" How much money is linked to the use of technology?
* How much time daily do people spend with family members? "Is it more or less," he asked, "than the time you spend online?
* Do believers spend more time consuming entertainment in a typical day -- or even on Sundays -- than in Mass, Bible readings or prayers? What is the ratio?
* How do these online activities compare with the time and money spent helping the poor?
* Could your family exist with one television, which would require family members to discuss what programs they will share and when?
* Can people even imagine going on a completely silent spiritual retreat, with no computers and no smartphones?
McCloskey said that when he meets with students who are serious Catholics, most have never even contemplated whether their omnipresent high-tech tools are shaping their souls.
"Let me stress that many of the things we do online are very good and that technology is a good gift, when used in the right way," he said. "But we only have so much time in this life. At the very least, we have to ask whether -- with all of this technology -- we have much time left for a deeper life, a life that includes room for contemplation."