I was out when news of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School first hit the online media. When I got home, I made some effort to catch up, but quit after about 20 minutes. It just seemed pointless.
There’s a depressing sameness to these shootings. The shooter’s almost always a boy in his teens or a man in his 20s with a history of psychological disturbance. Sometimes he turns out to have kept a diary or written a manifesto. (There’s a sameness here, too. Unless you’re a researcher, paranoia doesn’t make for very interesting reading.) Stories of heroism usually do come out — sometimes sooner, sometimes later — but they never make me feel any better. A dead hero or heroine is still dead.
Knowing there was no easy wisdom to be got, I went to the bazaar, the longhouse, the corner of the village common where my fellow villeins and I sharpen our sickles and put up our maypoles and compare our swelling buboes and listen to old Theobald the Bald relate for the millionth time how the unicorn kicked him in the groin. I logged into Facebook.
A number of people had posted a message delivered by Pope Benedict through the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. “The Holy Father,” it read, “was promptly informed of the shooting,” and had asked that his “heartfelt grief” be conveyed, along with his “assurance of this closeness in prayer to the victims and their families, and to all affected by the shocking event.”
If you’re one of those people who’s determined to impose fresh legal restrictions on gun ownership or ammunition sales, or who would like to see the mentally ill better monitored, a statement like this is meaningless. It’s a bromide phrased in formulaic language, presented by an underling, and possibly ghost-written by someone even less important. But at least in my own small corner of the Internet, it made a significant, not unpleasant impact. Some people Liked it, others shared it. A few dug up older Benedict quotes that seemed relevant, for example: “In the face of horror … there is no other answer than the cross of Christ: Love that descends to the abyss of evil.”
Love descending to the abyss of evil is one of those concepts I’ll probably spend the rest of my life breaking my head against. To tell you the truth, I’m not awfully confident there are a good thousand people in the world who really understand it the same complete and instinctive way in which people grasp, say, good manners. But, you know, sometimes you have to ask for ten bucks to get five. Even if nobody was able to follow this very bold, very immodest prescription, the great mass of my Facebook cronies and I managed to do something that just a little earlier would have seemed almost as miraculous. For a few hours, we canned our opinions, clamped off our snark glands, and went out of our way to be gentle to one another.
All the gestures were small, but many were beautiful. One woman announced she was streaming Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony” on Spotify and apologized to anyone who might find it “terribly trivial.” One guy, who normally plays the cynic to the life, offered to lead a Chaplet of Divine Mercy online. There were memes containing quotes on the subject of evil and some of statues of weeping angels or the Blessed Mother. Yogi Berra’s reply to the skeptic who asked whether kitsch could heal the soul — “De gustibus non est disputandum” — pretty much speaks for the ages.
The group hug lasted about as long as most of its kind. By the time night fell on Phoenix, PhD candidates were posting about their brain-dead students. A couple of bon vivants posted on new restaurants or microbrews they’d discovered. One gun-control advocate posted a meme reading: “How did ‘A well-regulated milita’ get twisted to mean ‘A well-armed, un-regulated populace?'” Someone found out that atheist blogger Hemant Mehta had reported on a couple of fundies who read the shootings as the natural consequences of a godless culture. We declared him Carrion-Eating Dipstick of the Hour. For us non-victims of the Sandy Hook massacre, the status quo ante had been regained, but the diversion had been a welcome one.
A few days ago, on the occasion of the Pope’s first tweets, a professor at Santa Clara University named Elizabeth Drescher took a skeptical view of the whole enterprise. “Will [papal tweets] have the status of magisterial teaching, functioning like official encyclicals,” she asks in an article for the Silicon Valley Mercury News, “or are they passing commentary? Something in between? Entweetcyclicals?”
Me, I hope popes do start defining Church teachings in 140-character blocks — it’ll spare me from having to drag my eyes through 15,000 words of Pacem in Terris. But, really, no pope ever has to get that ambitious. Simply posting brief, bland, general statements on breaking news will send cues that some of the faithful will actually pick up on. By sharing and re-tweeting and commenting and embellishing, we’ll make the echo chamber of our virtual life, briefly, into a snug place to live, and maybe even an inviting one to enter.