The Cloister and New Media

The New Constitutions placed the good use of social communication which includes the New Media (NM)1 within the provisions of the friary cloister (Const. 66 §1-5). This gives us an indication on how to approach NM in our lives as Conventual Franciscans. Hence, we may rightly ask and reflect on the relationship between the NM and the friary cloister. Allow me to offer some preliminary points on this subject while commenting on the above-mentioned chapter.

A Place of Meaningful Encounter

The friars are to be formed in the good use of social communication. It contributes to human development, to the acquisition of knowledge, to the sharing of information, to wider relationships, and, not least, to the work of evangelization. The friars are to use media maturely, responsibly, and moderately, taking care that its use not impoverish relationships with friars in the same Friary nor cause damage to one’s own consecrated life. (Const. 6, §3)

One of the main benefits of the NM is that within a few clicks we can post, comment, and share any content that we like in a digital platform of choice. Unlike traditional media which only presents and pushes information out, NM opens to communal engagement and conversations leading to meaningful relationships. Its function has significantly widened for the better.

Any medium of communication is a gift from God to humanity. NM as a gift, reflects the nature of the Giver who reveals Himself as the WORD MADE FLESH to all humanity. This WORD communicates and brings people together. This is the ultimate goal and meaning of a dialogue - it is not just to relay information but above all to form communities, and in our case a fraternity that walks together towards the Kingdom.

Turning our gaze to the cloister, we see the same dynamics. A cloister is a place of meaningful encounter. In our cloisters personal and fraternal bonds are fostered. In the cloister we are at home as it were to “post, comment, and share” for the common good. Moreover, the true center of each cloister is the WORD MADE FLESH that brings us closer together forever.

Questions for Reflection: Do I use NM to foster and deepen my relationship with all my confreres both near and far? What are the ways in which the use of NM damages one’s own consecrated life?

Creating Healthy Boundaries

Members of the entire Franciscan family, as well as any other guests who come to our Friaries, are to be received with goodness, charity, and hospitality. (Const. 6, §5)

The Christian virtues of goodness, charity, and hospitality must shine brightly in all our Friaries and presences. This does not however preclude that some areas are prohibited from outsiders. Our home/cloister is no place for all, no stranger can lawfully barge-into our private areas like the bedroom. This we have learned from our earliest years.

One of the many dangers that we should be vigilant about are boundaries. Boundaries just like our cloisters are like two-edged sword that on the one hand opens us to earthly frontiers, and on the other hand, sets a healthy limit which no one may cross. Our cloister is designed to promote and preserve communal boundaries. It too regulates fraternal life. But what happens when, these boundaries are breached because of an overly permissive use of NM? We may then ask the following questions: Am I aware of the boundaries? How far have I internalized in my personal life these boundaries especially in terms of my use of NM?

Respecting Personal and Communal Spaces

The Friary Chapter is to reserve part of the Friary for the privacy of the friars in order better to safeguard the freedom of the fraternal life; this declaration is to be confirmed by the Minister or Custos. For a reasonable cause and in individual instances, the Guardian may grant access as well to others. (Const. 6, §1)

While the English translation of the Constitutions does not explicitly mention the term cloister, the quote above conveys its meaning and function. The Friary Chapter has the faculty to designate places as reserve spaces. These communal spaces have to be acknowledged and respected by all. This is possible because respect is a universal human value. One does not need to be a Christian or take up formal classes in order to learn this. Every culture has its own unique expression of respect. We show respect by following the guidelines or policies given by competent authorities.

By extension, the use of the NM is being regulated by competent authorities. Its promotion and regulation among other things has the goal of safeguarding the freedom of the fraternal life. One of the reasons why the use of NM is regulated is that Christian culture in general and genuine religious practices in particular does not tolerate permissiveness in all its forms. There is the perennial and time-tested values of asceticism and vigilance. It goes without saying, that personal discipline is an indispensable prerequisite to a good and proper use of these impersonal tool we call NM.

Hence the following questions: Do I see the value of asceticism and vigilance in my use of NM (Const. 25, §3 and 53 §1)? Do I have the tendency to be addicted to the use of gadgets and similar things?

Accountability and Transparency

Given the widespread use of the means of social communication in our Friaries, it is advisable that each Province and Custody draft a directory for good use of the same, following the indications of Church documents. (Const. 6, §4)

In the past, one resorts to knocking the door of a parent’s room to ask for permission. Now that times have changed, I wonder if knocking is still a thing. It appears that knocking is an outdated practice in our digital life. When launching an application or visiting a website, a normal person does not need to knock for permission, he only clicks freely and at times permissively.

As I see it, the most vulnerable to the seemingly harmless convenience of accessibility, affordability, and anonymity of digital life are the young people or the digital natives residing in the digital continent. They are not yet rooted in their identity and therefore can easily be manipulated by ideological colonizers. On the other hand, most of the friars (digital immigrants) have already formed an identity according to the Gospel ideals. Nevertheless, the wisdom of the Order advises us to draft a directory for the good use of NM. The directory is an indispensable aid and a tool to internalize our boundaries and practice self-discipline.

Among the many guiding principles that we have to keep in mind in drafting the document are: Accountability and Transparency in our digital life. As friars we are all accountable in what we do digitally. We likewise have to be transparent, making sure our message is clearly understood so that miscommunications, misconceptions, and potential scandals may be avoided.

Apropos to this, two questions are forwarded for our reflection: How can I be accountable and transparent in my digital life? Am I ready to contribute my share and submit to the provisions of the directory for the use of NM?

Preaching the Gospel from our Cloisters

Allow me to quote a rather long section from the commentary of the constitutions. This would help us better understand the meaning of the cloister according to our Franciscan religious practice and tradition.

“Religious houses throughout history have understood the importance of cloister, coming from the Latin claudere indicating the state of being "closed off" from the world. Monasticism, with a stronger sense of withdrawal from the world, maintained a very strict understanding of cloister. The Franciscan tradition, with its emphasis on a deep engagement with the world while simultaneously remaining in a contemplative stance towards it, has understood its dwellings to be less "closed off". In the original Latin, a dwelling place of the friars is a conventus wherein the friars “convene” or “come together”, a much more dynamic understanding which leaves space for engagement with the world beyond the Friary”.2

I would like to imagine that the practical and non-conventional paradigm shift as regards the cloister during the time of St. Francis was revolutionary. St. Francis and the early friars led an itinerant life after the example of Jesus in the Gospels. They were moving from one place to another to preach the Good News to all of creation. With this lifestyle, a monastic cloister is out of the picture. Allow me to digress, or better still wander a little bit (pun intended) on the subject. Itinerancy may also have influenced the length of the Later Rule. Unlike the lengthy monastic rules, the Franciscan Rule may be described as short and sweet, adopted to the preaching of the friars (Rb IX) and conducive to mobility. Hence, also the breviaries.

Providentially, our present times shine a spotlight to the famous medieval chronicler who called the entire world the cloister of the friars. This is truer more than ever. Indeed, with our easy access to NM, the cloister offers us great opportunities to virtually preach the Gospel anywhere in the world. Again, a boundary has been breached but in a good way. By Divine Providence we are living in the best of times…

Let us return to reflect on these words: Within the Friary the friars are to foster a quiet environment conducive to the spirit of prayer, work, and study (Const. 66, §2). By analogy, the immediate environment of the friars meaning the religious cloister and by extension the entire world has now become a locus of prayer, work, and study. Toward this endeavor the NM is there to deepen not to distract or worse lessen our prayer life. NM as well facilitate our work and contribute to our intellectual pursuits.

Questions for Reflection: Do I take every opportunity to proclaim the Gospel through the use of NM? Are my posts, shares, comments, etc. using NM flow from my Gospel identity and consecration?

Conclusion: Temptation to Sofa Happiness and the Challenge to Heroism

At the end of our lives, God may demand from us the wounds caused by our battle under the banner of charity. Where are your wounds? God would ask. This is consistent with our state as part of the militant Church. The theme of militancy although no longer popular to modern sensibility and the contemporary push for political correctness is nonetheless founded both in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. A great figure to this is St. Paul of Tarsus and in recent memory, St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe who has chosen to call the Marian movement he founded, Militia Immaculatae.

Among the many enemies of Christian heroism, is sofa happiness. This attractive nemesis, is what Pope Francis mentioned in 2016 during the World Youth Day's final vigil at Krakow, Poland. This comes to my mind, when speaking of this kind of consumeristic happiness: a super comfortable sofa, refrigerator full of choice delicacies and beverages, fast and reliable internet and a functional if not the latest model of a high-end gadget… By the way, there is no telling when the list would end.

Needless to say, this is not the kind of life that a serious Christian is looking for, much less of a friar. We may have fallen once in a while to this trap thinking that this would bring heaven on earth. And yet, sofa happiness is like a truly delicious treat, so sweet but fails to satisfy and nourish – a junk food.

So for a friar where does true and perfect happiness lies? I would propose that the response is found in our Constitutions to wit:

By their religious profession the friars dedicate themselves totally to God who is loved above all else. They seek to live completely for the Lord, so that God might be all in all. For this reason, contemplation of things divine and assiduous union with God in prayer are to be the first and foremost duties of the friars. (Const. 35 §1)

Now this merits further reflection. At the moment, suffice it to say, that it is not wise to pick up a fight, for indeed nobody emerges victorious and everyone has something to lose. However, I would like to add that as long as the casualties are our pride and vices, the battle is worth engaging. Lastly, in our combats we should always be under the command of the Holy Mother Church who is the foremost herald of the Good News using all means including but not limited to the New Media, as her servant.

1 The General Guidelines for the Preparation of Provincial or Custodial Directories on the Use of New Media has the following words: "New media" refers to the complex of modern digital or Internet-based means of communication such as websites and e-mail. Among these means, social media are particularly important and provide opportunities for users to share information and content, such as photos, videos, experiences, and opinions, through the creation of social network platforms (social networks or communities). They are typically interactive, multimedia and can involve both public and private communication. By way of example, this would include personal blogs or vlogs, You Tube, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, Telegram and other platforms intended for these purposes.

2 Timothy Kulbicki and Robert Lezohupski, OFMConv., (2019), Commentary on the New and Revised Constitutions, Niepokalanow, pp. 150-151.

From the Custos

Fra Emmanuel Giva, OFMConv.
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