Liturgy related memes may be preaching to the choir but Church services are the usual point of contact that just about anyone has with the faith. They also tend to elicit the greatest response: a deer recoiling from an outstretched hand at the Our Father or a dreaded liturgical dance got hundreds and hundreds of likes. That many young people shared those memes on their own networks is a reflection of Millennials’ love for rubrics and Young Pope aesthetics, a generational divide that leaves most Baby Boomers mystified.
You might wonder why a successor to the Apostles, with all the gravitas that an office of 2,000 years standing brings with it, finds the time to make memes. It isn’t a ridiculous question, and it doesn’t have a ridiculous answer. On the one hand, memes are just a bit of fun, eye candy for the harassed and overburdened who scroll through their phones on the way to or from work, or as they drop off to sleep at night. But they can also carry important messages in ways that are accessible to millions.
In His public ministry, Jesus would often speak to the crowds in short stories related to everyday life but in such a way that they revealed something of the kingdom of heaven. The stories Jesus tells are drawn from his everyday observations on the way to work on a construction site with his foster father, Joseph. Together, they likely passed women sweeping out their homes and unfinished building projects that had run out of money, and shepherds calling their small flocks together as they crossed paths. When Jesus joined in with the men waiting to be hired, he would likely hear news of robbers assailing travelers on the road to Jericho. By connecting the mysteries of heaven to these ordinary stories, the Emmanuel could offer experts and common people alike a profound reflection on the kingdom of God. Memes, a highly demotic and widespread medium, function as modern-day parables — and they can be used to arouse curiosity in a whole new world.
When people come across my memes and realize they were made by a bishop, they’re usually stunned. “I want you to hold up today’s newspaper and show me the date,” is a typical request I get when someone views a meme I’ve made on Twitter and assumes they have come across a fake account. A bishop who makes memes: What a time to be alive.
But meme-making gets to the heart of why I got into this bishop business to begin with. Much of the job, though worthwhile, is not exactly exciting: There’s a lot of preparing Memoranda of Understanding and reports with Terms of Reference, or reading through balance sheets and looking for savings. But when I get to page 64 of a report on Occupational Health & Safety and read about a broken dishwasher that got fixed, I do sometimes daydream about the wonder and mystery that shimmered in my dreams when I first felt my calling to the priesthood. I imagine the Apostles on the lake of Galilee, leaving their boats and following after Jesus on a great adventure, going out into the world to make fishers of men. That’s the way the Internet beckons to me – truly a sea without shores.
Perhaps I should spend less time online: After all, my Archbishop, a friar of the Order of Preachers who always delivers well-prepared homilies, thinks I’m surgically attached to my phone. Though I have yet to break his good habits by distracting him with Facebook frivolities, he is aware of the two-way chatty nature of the online forum and, so long as I’m getting everything else done, encourages me in this rather odd kind of outreach.
Alluring memes are so easy to make. If you notice a picture popping up on different websites, you can then use a simple editing tool application to write your own text on it. Anyone versed in the spiritual classics can readily identify how the situation the meme presents can be addressed with a quip from Jesus or one of the saints, or, in some quirky cases, from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.
Still, it’s easy to get memes wrong. Not every meme is a winner. Some can even provoke offense. But in a time of faith practice free-fall among the young, I think that it’s a gamble worth taking. Pope Francis would rather see us making a mess by trying to reach out to people than to remain comfortable with the old ways of doing things. The shepherds, His Holiness says, should have the smell of the sheep. And the Twitter-using clerics, I deduce, the scent of the memes.
In a world of flux and shifting opinions, it’s my hope that a well-timed meme can open eyes to eternal truths that, once grasped, will never leave minds and imaginations. After all, memes speak to people in a language they already know, in a way that they understand, in a place where they’re ready to listen – just like Jesus used parables.
At least, that’s what I’d say if asked. Truth be told, it’s a lot of fun.