What I did on my Christmas holiday

This image of Father T. Austin Murphy Jr. preaching at a Christmas Eve Mass for Christ the King in Glen Burnie was taken by an unknown person and posted to a Facebook page, where it provoked heated commentary.

This Christmas Eve, like many priests around the Archdiocese of Baltimore and the world, I celebrated a parish “children’s Mass” in the auditorium of our school in Glen Burnie.

As with most such Masses, the “children’s” part of it meant that the young people put on a pageant of the Gospel story of the birth of Jesus.

The 4 p.m. Mass on Christmas Eve is typically the most heavily attended, as it gives many people the opportunity to welcome Christmas and head out to various family gatherings on Christmas Eve. Knowing this – and knowing that Christmas will bring to our pews many who have not been in a long time – I decided that my homily would incorporate a little pop culture to grab their attention and help me bring Christ right to where they live.

I brought up “Baby Yoda” – the adorable character from Disney’s new Star Wars television show, The Mandalorian. I even brought an image of the little alien, so everyone knew what I was talking about. If you want to read the homily, you can find it here.

Fine.

Christmas came and went, and just before the New Year, a friend shared a link from Facebook in which a picture of me holding that image of Baby Yoda had been shared on a church satire page. Based on the image, posters and commentators were bemoaning the sacrilege of bringing popular culture into the church, and several questioned “this priest’s” (i.e., my) prayer life and theological depth. They blamed the loss of young people in the Church to approaches like mine and all but attributed the burning of Notre Dame Cathedral to me.

All based on one picture someone had snapped during Mass (ironically, no one had a problem with the lack of reverence in bringing a cell phone out during the Sacred Synaxis).

The experience was a little hurtful; however, I am used to people not always liking what I say. What was most disappointing was that all of this came from people who thought they were right and holy (or “righteous,” as Jesus would say), and there was no difference between this manner of “dialogue” and any other sort of exchange online.

Social media have brought the level of debate and dialogue down, not enhanced it. From the anonymity on one’s keyboard, we are able to hurl insults and judgments without any real consequence. If your feelings are hurt, you’re a “snowflake,” and if you feel the need to argue back, you are shut down with the clever yet jejune, “OK, Boomer.”

Online argument is the antithesis of classical debate and argument. The nature of true argument is not to destroy the interlocutor. It’s not even to “win,” really. The point of debate and argument in the classical sense it to delve into and arrive at the Truth. And the Truth is something rarely manifested on social media – with its  photo filters, personality quizzes and cat memes.

This should bother us as Christians.

This is not the engagement of the world that Jesus charged us with when he sent the apostles forth. He promised to be with us always, and he certainly is; but shouldn’t this be evident in our online presence? Shouldn’t our opportunities for dialogue serve to elevate the conversation rather than feed into the zinger-hungry public fray that is the Twittersphere?  Yes, it takes more thought and probably more effort, but that’s the point, isn’t it? We are better than this. If the best that you can offer the public conversation is a strategically cropped SpongeBob picture, then you are not doing it right!

My experience reminded me of the immanent responsibility that I have – indeed, all Christians do – of choosing my words carefully – prayerfully. A picture is worth a thousand words, but that homily was more than just my own composition.  It was an opportunity for the Lord to speak to someone who was trying to connect with him. I know that many did – despite what online critics might have thought. And that’s all that matters.

Father T. Austin Murphy Jr.

Father T. Austin Murphy Jr.

Father T. Austin Murphy Jr. is author of the "Diamonds in the Rough" blog for the Catholic Review, contributing commentary on finding faith in popular culture.

Father Murphy is pastor of Christ the King in Glen Burnie and previously served as pastor of Our Lady of Hope, Dundalk/St. Luke, Edgemere and associate pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Essex. The Catonsville native is also a former Catholic chaplain at Towson University and a vocations director for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.