By Catherine Sheehan and Marilyn Rodrigues
Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP has told school students that much of today’s media is “toxic” towards Christianity and that young people can help the Church to use new media in a positive way.
During a lunch he hosted for 36 student leaders from Catholic secondary schools in Sydney’s Eastern Region, the Archbishop was asked by one student about the effect of the media, including social media, on the Church.
This was the second of three luncheons the Archbishop is hosting for student leaders this month. Bishop Terry Brady also joined the students for lunch.
“There are aspects of the media culture at the moment that are absolutely toxic for Christianity,” Archbishop Fisher said. “Deeply hostile to the Church, to Church leaders, to Church practice, to having any religious views at all.
“There would be forums in social media especially where you wouldn’t dare put up your hand as a Christian because of what would be dumped on you if you did. There are parts of that world that are quite nasty and I’d say violent towards religion and towards our religion.”
However, the media can also be a very positive tool for spreading the Gospel message, the Archbishop said. He gave the example of the recent Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral for the victims of the terror attacks in Sri Lanka. Around 3,000 people had attended the Mass, he said, yet a staggering 60,000 had watched the Archbishop’s homily via his Facebook page.
“That’s an example of where I can get out, as a Christian leader, to a much bigger world if I learn how to use the new media in the right way.
“I would imagine that there are lots of ways still largely untapped by the Church to put the new media as well as the traditional media more to the service of the Gospel on our passions like the environment, like justice for refugees, like the importance of the family and so on.
“There are ways we could be putting it out there through Instagram, Snapchat or whatever the current fashion is…”
The Archbishop answered questions from the students on a range of topics including “caffeteria Catholicism”, climate change, loving yourself and being an authentic Christian in a culture of conflicting voices.
Among the guests was Anngrace Tom, a Year 12 student at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart College, Kensington. She said she was “very excited” to be invited to lunch at the Archbishop’s house and had connected with her Catholic faith after attending World Youth Day in Panama in January.
Last week, the Year 11 and 12 students sought the archbishop’s thoughts on how to bring faith to suffering, the difference between love and lust, the disappearance of Christians from the Middle East and of religious men and women from Catholic schools. They also advised him on what ways they thought the Church could change to better reach out to and engage today’s youth.
Among the students was Matthew Smith, a Year 12 student from Southern Cross Catholic Vocational College in Burwood who said he never thought he had it in him to be a leader.
Matthew has overcome crippling shyness and now helps younger students to find their own voices through a program called ‘Lift Up’.
This year the wellbeing and spirituality leader has teamed up with fellow student Annemarie Tsangalias and school counsellor Helen Ward to pilot the weekly program which includes a mix of meditation, discussion, and input on growing confidence.
“Our sessions are all confidential and it’s a good way for people to interact out of their comfort zone. Often in class discussions they have got used to being the quiet ones,” says Matthew who believes it was the warm and supportive environment at Southern Cross that helped him come out of his shell.
“I tell them they don’t have to be so scared and shy as I used to be.”
The college’s director of Catholic life and mission John Mannah said that Matthew is a trailblazer who displays a maturity beyond his years and is a very effective member of the 10-member student leadership committee.
“He has a sincere desire to live out the Gospel values in the way he deals with everyone,” he said.
“It’s evident in the work he does in the liturgical and prayer life of the college. He brings a creativity to the role and makes it his own.”
Matthew and fellow college leader Grace Tahhan were among the 100 senior student leaders from Sydney Catholic Schools invited to share lunch at Cathedral House this month.
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The archbishop told the young people that his debilitating encounter with Guillain-Barre syndrome brought him a deeper understanding of human suffering, himself and God.
“It was an experience of total disability and total dependency,” he said.
“I couldn’t do anything for myself, I couldn’t wash myself. It was humiliating, painful and ugly. But dependency is the lot of a human being, and part of the glory of a human being is being there for each other.”
Religious men and women are a “gift to the country” and are still sorely needed while “something akin to a Christian genocide” is occurring in some countries of the Middle East during our lifetimes, the archbishop said.
University Catholic Chaplaincies’ Tony Mattar and Sydney Catholic Youth’s Chris Lee encouraged students to continue their faith journey post-school by tapping into the support offered throughout the city’s campuses, parishes and local groups.
Rosebank College, Five Dock, student Rowan O’Callaghan said he was impressed at the archbishop’s interest in engaging with young people through social media. Grace Tahhan from Southern Cross Vocational College said she enjoyed the “interesting and eye-opening” afternoon with like-minded youth leaders, while Matthew appreciated the respectful and non-judgemental tone of the discussion.
Next week Archbishop Fisher will welcome student leaders from Sydney’s southern region for the final luncheon at Cathedral House.