Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

As a child I recall our first family TV set arriving. By today’s standards it was quite bulky, the screen being proportionately much smaller than its outers and innards. I was old enough to realize that real people did not live inside, if for no other reason than the world was not black and white. Yet I was young enough to be enthralled by the worlds of adventure that caught me up in the westerns, space odysseys and sea worlds of the TV programs of the era.

Though technology has expanded, sharpened and colored the images, enhancing a sense of real-time engagement with the subjects, the relationships remain fantasies, despite the illusions of real presence fostered by the push button interaction of chatting and Instagramming. No one knows what is really on the other side of a screen, or who else is in the chat “room,” which is more like being at a bazaar than having a private audience, with all sorts of characters and hustlers lurking behind the drapes.

No matter how often warned, victims multiply, of identity theft, online human trafficking, and addiction to just about anything one can get addicted to. The usual suspects being some form of sensuality, money or power, it is all there for the asking (in many cases, without a fee) on the World Wide Web accessible on any screen. Parents and guardians who have convinced themselves their charges are “safe” because of advanced technological blocks know less than their children and charges do about circumventing or defeating such measures to block content much more destructive than anything one could find on the TV screens of their childhood.

Much good can be found online, much knowledge, amazing varieties of economic and commercial commodities, opportunities for income and employment unparalleled even 10 years ago. I certainly would not welcome monitoring or censorship — by what omniscient omnipotence? — of what our audiovisual media can offer us but, let’s face it, screen time can be a blessing or a curse, depending upon how it is appropriated and how responsibly used.

Pornography, in all its increasingly sophisticated forms, is perhaps the largest industry online today, absorbing the attention of shockingly young viewers, which I will not advertise here except to say, it is not difficult to access the data on how many viewers, particularly young men and even children, are developing major psychosexual difficulties linked both physiologically (brain chemistry) and socially to its use. The truly sad thing is that all human beings seek relationship and escape from the fears and pains of being isolated, alone, without companionship. Vulnerability to exploitation increased tremendously during the height of the pandemic and, with regular social contacts hindered by lockdowns and hyped by fears of going shopping, to work or to church, or leisure traveling, refuge to the screens became an increased risk for immersion into potentially dangerous and addictive content.

Another form of “screen time,” which may not occur to us to think of in this way, is something that can serve as a remedy to what is unhealthy and, ultimately, dangerously time consuming on electronic screens. It is quite telling that, even in church, it has become difficult to detach oneself from the demands of the ever-present cell call. Like one fly at a picnic, most of us, at one time or another, have suffered the embarrassment of our phone going off in a space like Mass or in a theater, when we thought we had silenced it. I always feel particularly sorry for the congregant who may not be particularly skilled at the technology, or the person whose noisy phone has fallen to the bottom of their large and full tote bag. Sorry for triggering any bad memories. I have enough of my own! Maybe it is best to leave the phone home.

At a pilgrimage in Lourdes, which I recently attended, it was mandated that all participants turn in their phones at the start. It was also a “dry” retreat of sorts and, though most were of legal age, no one at the end felt particularly deprived because of the inaccessibility of either phone or tipple, if I can put it that way. All sorts of arguments could be made about necessity, emergency and you-name-it — but one hour? Recall the words of Jesus to his disciples in the Garden, the night before he died: “Could you not watch one hour with me?”

So here I come to the thought that inspired my article … spending some (alternative?) “screen time” with Jesus! No, I am not thinking here so much of going to a prayer channel on TV or a site on the web, one of many good ones to help one pray better. All this is good, of course, but it is just “screen” time. I am thinking of REAL time. Did you know you could have that — have HIM — in real time?

You may be aware that many young people are beginning to discover this. A certain hunger, a desire, for Jesus who is truly present in the Sacrament of his Real Presence, which is what the Mass is, seems to be on the rise. I am not sure what is causing this. Maybe the frustration and emptiness of so much “screen time” is a part of it. What I am sure of is that we are experiencing an outpouring of grace. Besides being drawn more and more to focused and reverent celebrations of Mass — we heard testimony to this consistently during our Synod Listening Sessions throughout the Diocese — young people are asking for more opportunities for encountering Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and in the extended contact with the Real Presence, which Eucharistic Adoration offers as a way of prolonging the experience.

At Lourdes and Mexico City, I experienced this yearning, as well as another remarkable way of encountering Jesus through his presence in the poor — as he himself told us — and in those in particular need of accompaniment, due their illness or disability. I never saw so many wheelchairs at the same time as in Lourdes. And the people who came to be washed in the waters that Our Lady opened to St. Bernadette and to all who would come on pilgrimage, was nothing short of miraculous. I cannot help but share my joy in meeting Jesus in a profoundly real way with these experiences, a personal way that cannot be found on any screen.

Let me take it one step further. In a way, Jesus comes to us in a veiled way, like on a screen, but he is really there! We are watching more than an image. Jesus comes to us at Mass and when we spend time with him at Eucharistic Adoration in a way that brings peace and healing and real personal Presence that our hearts and souls long for. Remember, what most astounded St. Bernadette was how Mary spoke with her as a real person. Jesus wants to come to us in a way so much more intimately and personally than we can ever find with some image on a screen. Our young people are discovering this. Every one of us can find this, too. The friendships so many seek virtually online, can be found in the most wonderful friendship with Jesus himself. Look upon him and be healed! 

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