In class this week, we discussed using Twitter as a research tool. I learned of the site Followerwonk, a site that helps you search user profiles and biographies for key words. I did a quick search for some of the following key words: pastor, priest, Catholicism, and Christianity. The search returned so many results, and I quickly began following users in hopes that I might make some valuable digital connections.
It was then that I stumbled upon the hashtag #ashtag. It took me a minute before I got it, but then I remembered. Ash Wednesday is today. The hashtag includes priests encourage Catholics to attend church services and receive ashes. I get this. Twitter is a great way to reach out to the younger, technology-addicted generation of Catholics who may not be interested in heading to church on a Wednesday. A minute more of scrolling through, and I, much to my surprise, let out a gasp.
Could it be?
Was I actually seeing…
…ridiculously inappropriate Ash Wednesday-related memes?
Going into this research, I had a vision of the Catholic church. It was traditional. It was stuffy. It was boring.I could sit in mass and easily claim that half the attendees were over 40 and the other half were there being held against their will for a CCD attendance requirement. In between claims, I could fall asleep.
Get your ash to church! #ASHTAG—
Fr. Steve (@FrSteveMateja) February 18, 2015
But now priests are tweeting. They’re making puns with “ash” and “ass.” They’re responding with sincerity to Twitter profiles that make jokes about the Catholic faith, even if those jokes are in good fun.
I feel like I have entered a parallel universe where everything I had learned has suddenly been tossed out the window.
It’s interesting. It’s exciting. It’s refreshing. It makes sense. Social media is a great way to keep a notoriously lethargic, disengaged age group engaged and active.
In the past 12 hours, I became very pro-Catholic Twitter.
Then I went to an Ash Wednesday service at my church. It was packed, which bolstered my enthusiasm. I had to park two blocks away from the church on a side street and cross a main road, giving me more time to muse about what it all meant. I continued thinking that maybe I was wrong all along about people turning away from Catholicism.
The Gospel reading, though, left me confused. I followed along in the Liturgy book with Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18 to learn that Jesus told his disciples, “Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them…But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden.” The priest’s homily reminded me and my fellow parishioners that these ashes are a symbol to remind us to be less selfless in the coming 40 days in hopes of getting closer with God.
If I am not supposed to take part this in action for others to see, if I am supposed to anoint may head and wash my face, if I am supposed to be less selfless, why are the Twitter priests telling me to post a selfie with my ashes? Why am I being asked to so publicly commemorate my worship actions? It seems to be a contradiction, and it doesn’t make much sense.
Christianity Today posted an interesting article calling into question the piety of the #ashtag. It suggests that a more appropriate way to spread awareness would be personal conversations, a lost art.
It seems as though the Catholic community is trying to be open to the majority but in doing so, it is challenging its own doctrine. I feel like this may be why the Catholic church has remained so deeply rooted in traditional practices–when it tries to reach out and be socially relevant, the results are inherently problematic.
Going forward, I would love to discuss this issue with a priest while conducting my research. I also feel as though it would be an excellent segue into a conversation about making religion more appealing to a young generation and why such a task may or may not be difficult.
But first, let me take an #ashtag.