Finding Friends: Social Networking

God our Father, keep your love alive in our hearts that we may become worthy of you. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Building networks of friends on the Internet has become a way of life for millions of American teenagers. In this lesson we will look at the dangers, opportunities, challenges, and best strategies for social networking on the Web.  We will start our lesson with something tragic, but we hope it can teach us something.

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A tragic deception

Megan Meier thought she was talking to a boy who understood and cared about her. A 13-year-old who had struggled with depression, Megan met Josh Evans ― or so she thought ― on MySpace in September 2006. From her home in Dardenne Prairie, Mo., Megan shared her life with Josh for several weeks, believing she had discovered a soul mate.

But one day in October 2006 the notes from Josh started to turn nasty. Josh told her that she was a terrible friend and sent a series of disturbing messages. The next day, Josh ended the friendship. Megan, already dealing with difficult personal issues, was devastated. That night, she killed herself.

Megan never knew that Josh wasn’t real. Apparently, Josh was the invention of Lori Drew, the mother of a girl who lived on Megan’s block. Mrs. Drew pretended to be Josh because she wanted to gain Megan’s trust. Reportedly, Mrs. Drew’s daughter and Megan had been arguing and Mrs. Drew wanted confidential information from Megan.

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A time for reflection

Megan’s story ― though unique in some ways ― highlights some of the dangers of Internet use. Yet it can also teach us something positive. It can teach us to be promoters of good, not evil on the Internet.  While we pray for Megan and her family, we can also reflect on the need for each of us to become responsible and charitable in our dealings on the Internet. We also recognize the need to be prudent in whom we give our trust on the internet.

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Facilitating friendships

Surveys consistently find that most teenage users of the Internet aren’t there to communicate in a negative way with strangers. Teens usually use social networking sites simply to keep in contact with friends they have outside of the Internet.  “It’s a great way for friends to share information and experiences,” says Sherry Raspa of DisciplesNow.com.

People usually form communities and friendships around others who share their values, beliefs and interests. Churches, social clubs, and sports teams are a few examples of this. We can do the same thing on the Internet by carefully discerning which virtual communities to sign up for and spend time in.

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Some good news for the Internet

DisciplesNow.com is a positive example of one of the Web sites and social networking communities available to Catholic teenagers. It was started in 1999 by a group of youth ministers in the Baltimore area, working with the support of the Division of Youth and Young Adult Ministry of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. DisciplesNow.com was among the first major, moderated Catholic Web sites for teenagers in the United States.

Beginning this month, January 2008, DisciplesNow.com will offer social networking with all the lastest technologies to make it a professional alternative to MySpace and Facebook.

“You can create groups and network within the Catholic youth community,” says Mrs. Raspa, who manages DisciplesNow.com. “Youth ministers will be able to go in and set up groups and invite people into the group. … You can set up a profile, upload your pictures, have friends, accept and decline friends, upload video… all the things you can do on MySpace.

“We have created a safer space for teenagers to network. Most people using our site will be Catholic, some will be non-Catholic Christians. But our moderators decide who has access and who doesn’t.”

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Reality check

Though DisciplesNow.com seeks to create a safer, more Catholic environment for teenagers, Mrs. Raspa warns that no place is entirely safe. And no place, she says, eliminates the need for Internet users to protect themselves.

“There is no program, no Web site, no gadget, that will keep a young person 100 percent safe on the Internet,” Mrs. Raspa says. “The best program you can have for safety is communication with your parents about what you’re doing on the Internet. Show them your favorite sites. It’s not about having your privacy invaded, it’s about acknowledging their love for you.

As a young person, you want to trust your parents and their love for you enough to give them some access to your life on the Web. You don’t want them over your shoulder all the time, but you do want their advice and guidance.

“If your parents are concerned about your MySpace account, then give them the password to your page. Show them there’s no reason to be worried. Earn their trust. Despite the sensational stories, you know that most teenagers aren’t online to meet strangers and do bad things.”

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Spreading good news

In fact, the Web offers amazing opportunities to do good and to spread good news. Take a look at two teens who are seizing those opportunities.

This past November, 16-year-old Danielle MacInnes, an active Catholic from Minnesota, decided to post a slideshow on the Internet that she had made to go with a popular song “Christmas with a Capital C.” The song is by the Christian band The Go Fish Guys. Danielle thought it would be fun to share some of the inspiration she had felt as she listened to the song. She didn’t know how popular her new slide show would be. Since being posted on You Tube (http://www.youtube.com/user/ZackMaddie4Ever), the slide show has received more than 4 million hits.

The grateful Go Fish Guys band says that the work of this “very creative fan” has sparked “more e-mails, phone calls, and visits to our Web site than ever before, and all because of this video.”

By a simple effort to communicate something positive  faith-driven, Danielle has helped millions of people to reflect on the true meaningof Christmas.

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Letting them know we care

Another teen using the Web to promote a positive message is Shauna Fleming. Now a freshman in college, Shauna started the organization A Million Thanks (www.amillionthanks.org) with her friends at Lutheran High School in Orange, California, when she was 14. Their original goal was to send a million letters, e-mails, cards, prayers, and thoughts to U.S. military men and women to show their appreciation for the sacrifices, dedication, and service of these people who are risking their lives to protect us.

Through the support of many others and also by networking on the web, Shauna and her friends reached their goal. They continue helping the troops today. A Million Thanks has collected and distributed over 3 million thank-you letters and cards to U.S. military members since March 2004. Shauna and her friends are an example of communicating a positive message and letting others know they are loved and appreciated.

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Positive change

These stories can invite us to be protagonists in a positive change on the Internet. We are more aware of our responsibility to work for this change, and this can commit us to be true Christians, to show our faith by living heroic charity. Let’s commit to be real friends to others by respecting them at all times. Let’s learn to protect our hearts by being open with our parents and prudent in the way we deal with others on the Web. A Christian is someone who brings Christ’s love to others. Let’s ask Christ to make us messengers of his love to others in this new frontier.

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Internet Do’s and Don’ts

DO be open with your parents

They are your best Internet allies. Show them your favorite sites and keep them updated on your Internet activities. Earn their trust and acknowledge their love.

DO be prudent with others.

Don’t talk on the Internet with people that you wouldn’t want your parents to meet. Don’t say things on the Internet that you would be ashamed to let your parents hear.

DO be brave enough to show respect.

“Love your neighbor as yourself.” You wouldn’t want others talking trash about you or someone you love, so don’t do it to them.

DO be positive at all times.

Talk only about other people’s positive points, never the negative. The Internet already has enough mud on it – you don’t need to sling some more.

DON’T forget the reason for being positive:

Christian charity and forgiveness always pay off; positive talk is more powerful and attractive in the long run; positive talk wins real friends; true Christians learn how to overcome evil with good.

DON’T write when you are upset.

Instead, distract yourself for awhile; give yourself time to calm down so you don’t write something you will regret later. Get offline. Take a walk, listen to some music, talk with someone who has a good heart, and get some advice from someone who is wise about relationships.

DON’T send a critical e-mail right away.

If you have to write something that is critical of others, let it wait in your draft folder for a few days before sending it. Then review it. Once you are sure that it is objective and respectful (ask yourself: Would I like someone to publish that about me?), you can send it.

DON’T forget to be a real Christian.

Tell Christ what is going on in your heart and ask him for advice. When dealing with resentment and anger, remember where to find peace: in Christ. Be quiet for a while; remind yourself that you are definitively loved by Christ, and that whatever happens, love never abandons you. So your life is good.

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Bible Blurbs

“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:30)

“This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 12-13)

“If I speak … but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13: 1-2)

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous … it is not rude … it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7)

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Pope Quotes

“For you, as I know well, friendship and contact with others, especially with your peers, are an important part of everyday life.” (Benedict XVI, April 10, 2006)

“The personal encounter with the divine Teacher who calls you friends can be the beginning of an extraordinary adventure:  that of becoming apostles among your peers.” (Benedict XVI, April 10, 2006)

“Above all, the Church desires to share a vision of human dignity that is central to all worthy human communication. Seeing with the eyes of Christ, I can give to others much more than their outward necessities; I can give them the look of love which they crave.” (Benedict XVI, January 24, 2007)

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Catechism Clips

1829 The fruits of charity are joy, peace, and mercy; charity … fosters reciprocity and remains disinterested and generous; it is friendship and communion.

1931 Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that “everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as ‘another self’.

2479 Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his name and reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.

2496 Users should practice moderation and discipline in their approach to the mass media. They will want to form enlightened and correct consciences the more easily to resist unwholesome influences.

Saints and Heroes

Tireless Communicator of Good News

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St John Francis Regis, S.J., Priest (entered heaven on December 29th, 1640)

John Francis Regis came from a well-to-do family, received a good education, was tall, athletic, good-looking, and extremely personable.

He felt called to serve God as a priest, and he was received into the Jesuit novitiate when he was 18.  When he was first ordained he worked in a hospital, caring for the sick, a type of work he loved. A little while later, he was sent to northern France where he began ten years as a traveling preacher through northern France, single-handedly repairing the social and religious destruction wrought by the recently ended (and soon to begin again) religious wars.

The poor flocked to him.  In the summers he would preach, teach, and serve them in the cities, involving the wealthy in his work as well.  In the winters, when the farmers had more time, he would travel from village to village.  He slept only three hours a night, and ate little more than apples and bread, but his energy, his dynamism, his devotion to the confessional, his supernatural eloquence, his active charity – in short, his whole Christian, apostolic being flourished all the same.

John Francis Regis died at the young age of 43, during Christmas week, from pneumonia, which he had contracted due to his unrelenting work to bring Christ to those most in need.

Communicating the beauty of truth

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St Clelia Barbieri, Virgin, Foundress of the Congregation of Minims of the Sorrowful Mother (entered heaven in 1870)

Clelia was born on the outskirts of Bologna (northern Italy). As a child, she had to learn the hard trade of weaving and spinning hemp – the only industry which kept food on the meager tables of the town.  But she also learned the catechism.  As a teenager, she felt a growing desire to serve God exclusively, and finally she left home to join the Christian Catechism Workers, a small group (mostly of men) that taught the faith to farmers and other laborers who fell through the cracks of normal church structures.  She started out as an assistant, but soon, in spite of her young age, she became the heart and soul and leader of a small group of other women and girls who completely revived the smoldering work.

Clelia was a beautiful girl, and with more exposure to the public eye she soon received a barrage of marriage proposals, all of which she rejected.  Her group then got the idea of forming a small religious community dedicated both to prayer and to the apostolate of teaching and serving the poor and abandoned social classes.  As soon as they started, Clelia began to experience physical and moral suffering, not the least of which included calumny and humiliating insults.  But she persevered, and only two years after the foundation, while she was just 23 years old, she passed from this life to the Father’s House.

She only lived till she was 23, but her spirit lives on in the Congregation of the Minims of the Sorrowful Mother, and in the souls of the thousands of people who have found truth, meaning and purpose through their ministry.

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