Relating Sacramentally in Online Teaching

By Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, Ph.D.

What does sacramentality  look like in an online classroom?
What does sacramentality look like in an online classroom?

Stephen Okey’s recent reflection on “Catholic Identity and Online Education” is a timely conversation starter, and I appreciate his framework of focusing especially on five key areas of concern around Catholic identity. Of these five, the third concern of “the sacramental and liturgical life of the university” is especially intriguing for me. With a background in liturgical studies and my research focusing on faith formation and digital culture, the excellent questions he raises are frequently on my mind as well.

Steve makes the point that “given the centrality of physical contact for sacraments, there can be no real sacramental life mediated online,” focusing the rest of his thought on this topic around innovative possibilities to mediate the university’s sacramental celebrations and spirituality enrichment opportunities to online students. Streaming sacramental celebrations online or offering online chaplain services and online retreats are possibilities explored at places such as Creighton, or my own institution of Loyola University New Orleans. It seems to me that with some intentionality, we will see more and more of these from the campus ministries of Catholic institutions around the country. The fact that many of our Catholic institutions have active social media profiles, blogs, YouTube channels to enrich the presence of campus ministry is a sure sign that we are headed in this direction.

And yet, there is another important question that Steve’s statement about sacramental life mediated online ( or lack thereof) that is worthwhile to include in this overall reflection on Catholic identity: the sacramentality of teaching and learning that can occur in an online course. While Steve rightly points out that the sacraments in the Roman Catholic tradition are firmly rooted in the physical, actual, non-transferable experience of being gathered as Church at a time and a place, I would make room for the broader notion of sacramentality in envisioning the potential of the teaching and learning experience in an online course. As such, Steve’s third area of concern is a complex one for me, and it invites reflection not only on how to make face-to-face sacramental and spiritual resources available to online students, but also on how to infuse the practice of online teaching and learning with an authentic sense of the Catholic sacramental imagination, not just in content but in practice.

At Loyola New Orleans, I have taught online courses in the areas of pastoral theology and religious education for the past few years. Out of the dozens of students I have had the chance to work with, I have never met most of them face-to-face. Yet I have found the online class a place of encounter, a place infused by their presence, a place where postings act as symbols that reveal and conceal the full, embodied person behind the screen. In the online class, we have shared the joys and challenges of students getting married, having children, discerning vocation to the priesthood, struggling with illness, seeking and finding new employment. I am particularly marked by the experience of the tragic and accidental death of one online student while she was enrolled in my class in the summer of 2012. As a class, we together grieved a person who was part of our learning community, though none of us ever saw her or each other face to face – a profound experience. While sacraments strictly do not take place online, examples like these reveal that there are a whole lot of ways we can experience the sacramental in the online course. If and when we seek to authentically encounter people and seek to grow in community with them toward a sense of communion, sacramentality abounds.

I am aware that this perspective on online teaching and learning may be new, unusual or out of left field for some. For some, the online course is simply tool, a way to offer more flexible options for students, a way to make sure the institution remains innovative and competitive on the market. For its strongest critics, the online course is technology attempting to distill, reduce and make into a commodity what happens between humans in the face-to-face classroom. If we approach the online course just based on the technology it offers us, it can be the most perfunctory teaching-learning context; a digital version of the correspondence course in which instructors upload the content, and students upload their assignments. Dropbox can do a satisfactory job as an online learning platform if we focus just on the technology of the online course. I think there is much more to it.

What I am proposing is a shift in focus away from the technology of the online course toward it being a platform for true encounter, for relating authentically with another person through a screen. Already here we are wading in the waters of a Catholic theological posture, one that evokes the theology of revelation, the theology of social communication, and even sacramental theology. For me, the online course is an opportunity to practice seeking encounter, practice building community, precisely because in mediated nature of the context I have to. I have to try, I have to experiment, I have to engage in order for encounter and community to emerge in this space. It does not unfold on its own, any more than it would on Dropbox. In this intentional posture, I find three concepts especially helpful for infusing the online classroom with a sacramental pedagogy.

  • Symbol – In the online context where teacher and learner interaction takes place largely by postings on a discussion board, and where one’s participation in the course is largely indicated by the fact that they have contributed a posting to said discussion, postings are not just postings any more. They are symbols that both reveal and conceal the reality of their author. They are concrete artifacts made of the pixelated word that indicate for us the presence and activity of the other, and their attempt to relate, engage, enter into conversation, enter into community.
    As symbols, postings can be ambiguous and hold a surplus of meaning. What meaning the author intends may not be the same meaning the reader gathers from it. This experience of a surplus of meaning can lead to misinterpretation, confusion, and even conflict in the online course, where the communicative context is relatively narrow, and lacking in gesture, tone, sound. A sacramental posture is especially helpful here, acting on the understanding that the meaning of the symbol is evocative rather than exhaustible. When in search of meaning, ask. When striving to interpret, follow up. Already, relationships are forming, encounter is happening.
  • Presence- Although the posting dominates the way we are present to one another in the online course, digital technology is enabling the online educator to experiment with much more. Establishing and inviting an active presence is an essential task in online teaching, and a challenging task in that this presence is de facto mediated. Sacramental theology has thought long and hard about the concept of mediated presence and bears wisdom for a sacramental approach to teaching. It encourages the intention to relate, to convey one’s presence as a full, embodied human being in a way that also offers hospitality to the learner as a full, embodied human being. In addition to postings, I record myself talking. I share images. I host webinars. I hold Skype office hours. I make sure students are aware of me as a person behind the screen, as I am aware of them as such.
  • Encounter – Symbol and presence both yield the concept of encounter, a favorite of Pope Francis, especially when it comes to social communication. As a sacramental word, encounter shifts the focus from thing to event, from the concrete and actual to mystery. In is also a relational word, an outward word, a word that implies that we move out of ourselves toward the other, and they do the same. It is also a word that implies seeking solidary, especially with those who are dismissed, disregarded, isolated. In the online course, seeking encounter is special attentiveness to what may be concealed by the screen, to always make room for the mystery of it, to extend hospitality to it even if it may not ever be expressed concretely. As an instructor, it means assuming there is more. It means reaching out first to students who struggle or seem overwhelmed. As a participant, it is engaging in discussion that resists jumping to narrow conclusions about the other, and dismissing them as easily as a mere words.

My hope for online teaching and learning at our Catholic institutions is that it expresses in practice a pedagogy of sacramentality. Though this does not transfer sacraments to the online context, their reality can infuse online teaching and learning, as it can and does the rest of our lived reality.

Daniella Zsupan-Jerome Ph.D is assistant professor of liturgy, catechesis and evangelization at Loyola University New Orleans. She is author of Connected Toward Communion: The Church as Social Communication in the Digital Age (Liturgical Press, 2014).