[WATCH] Fr Joe Borg: ‘Church has to understand new generation of digital natives’

Recently appointed to a Vatican study group tasked with examining the Catholic church’s mission in the digital environment, Fr Joe Borg says the church must listen as people navigate two parallel realties – their worldly and virtual lives. He speaks to Kurt Sansone about the church’s yearning to explore the digital frontier

Fr Joe Borg was appointed to a Vatican study group tasked with exploring the church's mission in the digital environment (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
Fr Joe Borg was appointed to a Vatican study group tasked with exploring the church's mission in the digital environment (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

The Catholic church is on a mission to understand the virtual spaces inhabited by contemporary society and one man tasked with the job is Fr Joe Borg. 

A media expert, Borg was appointed last April by the Vatican on a study group that is examining the church’s mission in the digital environment. The group is one of 10 set up to provide deeper insight into the more contentious issues that emerged from October’s synod of bishops. 

Borg emphasises several times the importance of listening, something many do not easily associate with the church. 

“In the church, we often make the mistake of believing we have the answer to everything. We do not. We believe we should always speak. But the church’s attitude today, pushed by Pope Francis, is that we should be listening more,” he tells me. “If you do not listen, you cannot love. If you cannot love you cannot be a church.” 

Borg says people live in two parallel spaces – the physical space and the virtual space. “Both are real,” he says, adding the church’s job is to be present where people are. 

“The church has to be present both in the physical space and the virtual space if it is to reach out to people. If the church is not present it is not fulfilling its duty… we have to respect this and be present wherever people congregate,” he explains. 

Borg says the realities of a young person living in Korea are different from those of someone living in Sudan or the United States. It is these different voices from around the world the study group has to listen to before making its recommendations. 

But the difficulty to make some sense of this new digital reality is not lost on Borg. Indeed, in a reflection on the Maltese situation he expresses frustration that recommendations he had made back in 2008 on how the church could embrace the media environment were largely ignored. One issue he highlights is the lack of synergy within the church. 

“In the church, everyone wants to build their own cathedral and we are unable to work together… We are many, we are rich, we are creative but we lack synergy,” he tells me.

The following is an excerpt of the interview. 

The full interview can be viewed on maltatoday.com.mt, Facebook and Spotify

Is this a situation where if the people are not coming to the church, the church is going to their virtual meeting places? 

The church exists for the people. Its job is to deliver the word of God to the people. To do so, it has to be present wherever people are… We are the first generation of humans in all history that is living in two spaces at the same time. With this [he shows his mobile phone] we do not only live in a physical space… we also live in this digital space… We, and young people more than others, are living in two spaces, two environments that are different. Both are real – one is physical and one is virtual. And so, the church has to be present both in the physical space and the virtual space if it is to reach out to people… The big question is how do we do that?

Pope Francis set up 10 study groups to delve into the most contentious topics that came out of the Synod in October 2023. These issues include big dogmatic, spiritual and pastoral controversies such as dealing with LGBTIQ+ persons and women deacons; the fact that the media and the digital space are being considered a contentious topic, doesn’t it say a lot about how the church views this space? Is the digital frontier a threat to the church? 

If we were to forget the church for the time being, historically whenever a new medium was invented, such as radio, cinema, television and the internet, we always had two broad reactions – those who embraced the new medium and viewed it as some form of salvation and those who looked at it in a negative light… The church’s official attitude today is that the church has to be present [in these digital spaces]… the church must not use the media primarily to say how good it is because what interests the church is not the institution but the person… For the church to be using its media well there has to be a plurality of voices that make up the church. Not everyone agrees on everything; not everyone thinks the same; on the basic things, we agree but on many other things there are different ideas and the church’s media must reflect these ideas. The church has to also be present in the media to learn and understand the new generation of digital natives.

You were responsible for the Maltese church’s document the Digital Face Of Christ in 2008… that document had a whole chapter on the importance of media education. Do you feel the Maltese church stopped at the implementation of that document and did not evolve further? 

The most impressive thing about that document was that around 80% of the suggestions it contained were not implemented. You are asking me whether the church implemented the recommendations and stopped at that; the fundamental suggestions were not even implemented… let me cite the proposal on media education; the Maltese church was a pioneer in media education in its schools back in the 1980s, having had specific text books. Since then, every document that argued on the importance of media education was followed by schools that removed media education as a subject… Another issue that is mentioned in almost all pastoral plans issued by the Maltese church since the start of the 1980s is the lack of coordination. Between the Maltese and Gozitan diocese there should be one pastoral plan on the use of the media… This is something that hurts me. In the church, everyone wants to build their own cathedral and we are unable to work together… We are many, we are rich, we are creative but we lack synergy.

You have a church that is attempting to knock on the door to enter the virtual pjazza where people are gathered. But will it have people willing to listen to it? 

I believe there are areas where the voice of the church is not given importance. But we must always start from what is possible. This is a mistake we often make, even in the church. We argue that ‘our’ medium should transmit ‘our’ voice. But communication does not work in this way. We have to ask ourselves what the values of the people we wish to target are. Once we have this picture we have to determine whether there are overlaps in the audience’s values and those ‘our’ media espouses. I would start by emphasising the values that are common between us and the people we intend to target. It is in this shared space that dialogue can happen…

You have repeatedly emphasised the importance of listening. It is not a term many would associate with the church; many expect the church to teach, to speak to you. 

This is the paradigm shift the church has to make. The church’s mission is to love and serve. You cannot love and serve unless you listen. If you do not listen, you cannot pass on your word. You have to know a person before you can accompany them… We create this idea of God as an examiner and if we hit the 45 mark we pass, if not we fail. God does not have a single pass mark for everyone. Does a parent of three children expect the same output from each and every child? No. A parent looks at their children as individuals and not as a collective. God does the same with us… The church has to accompany people in a voyage to enable them to discover the love of God. Whenever the church dictated matters before it showed love, it did bad things.