Does the word “ïnfluencer” trouble you, dear reader? Are you bothered that your Spellcheck puts a red line under it? That our social media employ people able to influence potential buyers of a product or service by promoting or recommending the item? How do we recognise such people? Can they improve our lives? Can they do us harm as well as good?
The commonest kind of influencer is a celebrity. Not all celebrities, of course, are willing to participate in this kind of salesmanship. Successes, however, can be dramatic. Australia’s most famous cricketer, Shane Warne, recently promoted his baggy green player’s cap on TV. It finally sold for $US700,000. Warne generously donated the proceeds to our bushfire appeal.
Tourism Australia has recruited not one but seven online stars from Europe to entice Northern Hemisphere holiday makers to make a trip Down Under. The agency said the influencers had to undergo a rigorous orientation process before receiving a fee from its campaign budget for producing “captivating digital content”.
The Catholic Church has not been slow to seize the opportunities offered by this kind of mind shaping. As a striking example, in Venezuela, a Capuchin Franciscan Fr Luis Salazar has devised a series of one-minute videos called “Living the Gospel”, in which he examines selected excerpts from the New Testament to the accompaniment of electronic music and special effects. Fr Salazar calls himself ”a Catholic influencer”. In the past year he has accumulated 120,000 followers.
One sideline of his work is that he deals personally with problems sent in daily by his “digital parish”. Another is the weekly soup kitchen in which his local parish serves up to 800 meals a day.
Fr Salazar’s labours derive their authenticity from criteria for the exercise of authority voiced by Pope Francis: they are highly visible, and they accord with what he does and the way he lives
But there are other influencers in our lives, more humble and no less valuable: parents who lovingly help their children to live and flourish as good Christians, the generous souls who accept public contumely as they protest peacefully at the doors of abortion clinics, the priest who declares he will go to gaol rather than betray the sanctity of the confessional.
To see a supreme influencer at work we turn to a key moment in the life of Jesus, his baptism as described in Matthew 3.13-15:
Jesus came to John to be baptised by him. John tried to dissuade him. “Do you come to me?” he said; ‘I need rather to be baptised by you.” Jesus replied, “Let it be so for the time being; we do well to conform in this way with all that God requires". John then allowed him to come.
Jesus, though totally sinless, would not be put off: John had to baptise him “for the time being”. Jesus was a people person, anxious to conform with current practice. He wanted to influence those present to follow his lead and be baptised. This was a unique example of tact and fellow feeling from a man who touched lepers and dined with tax collectors and sinners. What a marvellous model for us all!