Are We Ministerial “Rip Van Winkles”?

by | May 26, 2021 | Formation, Reflections, Systemic change, Vincentian Family | 1 comment

A 20-year nap

In the American classic, Rip Van Winkle fell asleep in the Catskill Mountains and woke up 20 years later, having missed the American Revolution.

For over twenty years we have been living in the very early stages of a “digital revolution”. We are just now beginning to realize how this digital revolution is impacting every facet of our lives.  

It is not so much that we have slept through the Digital Revolution. It is more that our efforts to cope with COVID-19 are waking us up to the much broader implications and possibilities of living in a digital world.

In the midst of the isolation of COVID-19 “Zooming” is a metaphor opening our eyes to different ways of doing business… and even different forms of presence.

Prophetic voices

It is not that we were not warned. For me, the following is somewhat ironic. A nearly 20-year-old document from the Pontifical Council for Social Communications saw the broad outlines before most people. “2002 The Church and the Internet boldly wrote …

“the Internet, which is helping bring about revolutionary changes in commerce, education, politics, journalism, the relationship of nation to nation and culture to culture—changes not just in how people communicate but in how they understand their lives.”

That same year St.  John Paul II wrote

  “Although the virtual reality of cyberspace cannot substitute for real interpersonal community, the incarnational reality of the sacraments and the liturgy or the immediate and direct proclamation of the gospel, it can complement them, attract people to a fuller experience of the life of faith, and enrich the religious lives of users.”

Vincentian perspectives

A former Superior General Gregory Gay wrote…

My brothers, the world has changed faster than most of us would ever have anticipated.  The internet is one of the key movers in this change. … I have two questions to pose to you for your reflection, my brothers. First, How will the world be different in just six years?  Whether we like it or not, technology will be woven more and more into the fabric of our lives, even the lives of the poorest among us. Second, Will we be ready to serve in such a world?

Over 20 years ago the Final Document of the 1998 Congregation of the Mission General Assembly presciently made the connection:

“We are entering into an era of information technology which brings with it unrecognized, and therefore even more insidious forms of poverty. If the poor remain without access to information technology, they will be further marginalized and locked into a cycle of poverty.”

We are currently seeing a two-tier education becoming solidified with children who lack of access to computers or parents poorly prepared to guide them. Their parents will increasingly be locked into jobs that will perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

As Vincentians we need to recognize this revolution will reinforce the already existing structures of poverty.

Structural information poverty should be a concern of all the followers of Vincent.

Allow me to modify Vincent’s well- known words: The Vincentian Family is not now what it once was. Nor is it what it is called to be.

Let us wake to the impact of the digital revolution on those we serve.



  • Am I aware that the “digital revolution” is much more profound than just using email or watching Netflix?
  • How conscious am I of the long-term consequences of the structural dimensions of information poverty?
  • Do I ask, as Vincent did, “What must be done”?

1 Comment

  1. Claire Sweeney

    Very timely Fr John and thank you for all your efforts to keep us in touch with the digital revolution. I note that Rip Van Winkle slept for only 20 years; our Óisín was in Tír na nÓg [The Land of Youth] for 300 years and it was only when he returned and touched Irish soil that he became old and realised that the whole world had changed and that St Patrick had arrived in Ireland. It has always been a challenge to live in the here and now. Very difficult for many of us to understand the impact of technology in our lives. I think I am going to put my trust in St Louise this time as she seemed willing to make a move more quickly than Vincent!