The Pope of Social Media

Something I wrote for the March 10 issue of OSV. Dated now, but perhaps still interesting.  

On December 12, 2012 (12/12/12) Pope Benedict XVI did what no other pope had ever done: he used Twitter. Not only that, but he mastered the medium on this first try with a Tweet that was exactly 140 characters long:  “Dear friends. I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.”

It was a simple and humble introduction freighted with significance. The internet is something more than a communication tool: more than wireless radio or telegraphy or television. It is a place. Paradoxically, it is a place that does not exist, yet allows people to “congregate” for the exchange of ideas.

When St. Paul went to Athens, he preached in temples and marketplaces, but finally was brought to the Areopagus, where people came “to tell or to hear some new thing.” The internet is that Areopagus. It is the modern agora, and Benedict knows that the Church must be present in this place. If we are to become an evangelical Church once again in this post-Christian world, we need to evangelize where the people are. And the people are on the internet.

The decision speaks to the fundamental characteristic of Benedict’s reign: it was a teaching papacy. Bl. John Paul II was larger than life: a charismatic figure that moved millions and changed the fate of nations. Benedict, by contrast, was the professor pope: the master catechist of his age. His encyclicals and books were not densely argued philosophical texts. Rather, they brought us right back to the basics of the faith, and infused those things—love, hope, the life of Christ—with a new meaning for a new age.

This is why he made the decision to reach out to Twitter’s roughly 100 million active users. As he observed in his message for the 47th World Communication Day, social networks were “increasingly becoming part of the very fabric of society.” It was not a decision free of risk, and the moment the @pontifex handle went live, we saw just why. An eruption of pure hatred and ignorance threatened to overwhelm the moment. People threatened, insulted, jeered, and derided the Holy Father. His presence in this place was a magnet for evil, creating a kind of digital via dolorosa for this small, scholarly man of peace, as he was pelted with verbal bricks from thousands of people who didn’t know the first this about him, his Church, or his message.

The haters latched onto each subsequent tweet like lampreys, using simple messages of love and peace as platforms to preach hate and violence, share explicit images, or merely try to shock. A simple message like “If we have love for our neighbor, we will find the face of Christ in the poor, the weak, the sick and the suffering” generated hundreds of responses, each sicker than the last. But it was also seen by the pope’s 3,000,000+ followers in various languages, and retweeted or favorited over 11,000 times. And, in the end, even the haters were exposed to the Gospel truth.

The hate revealed a great deal about people tweeting their ignorance, but it also validated his decision to be in this place, at this time. The light of Christ and the Church needs to be brought to these dark places. As The Church and New Media author Brandon Vogt observes, “Pope Benedict’s tech activity can be summed up by his predecessor’s favorite phrase: he’s not afraid. Despite the patronizing laughs at an eighty-five year old Pope tapping messages on an iPad, regardless of the extreme vitriol people have tweeted his way since embracing Twitter, he’s done exactly what he’s encouraged all the faithful to do over the years: ‘without fear we must sail on the digital sea.’”

Long ago, Marshall McLuhan, the great Catholic prophet of the mass media, saw this exact moment coming: “When electricity allows for the simultaneity of all information for every human being, it is Lucifer’s moment. He is the greatest electrical engineer. Technically speaking, the age in which we live is certainly favorable to Antichrist. Just think: each person can instantly be turned to a new Christ and mistake him for the Real Christ.”

In a medium teeming with false Christs, the voice of the Risen Christ, in the person of his vicar, was vital.

Prior to his Twitter debut, Benedict had already urged Catholics to engage online in his “Proclamation and Authenticity of Life in the Digital Age,” delivered for the 45th World Communications Day. He noted that the new technology was changing “communication itself” while “giving birth to a new way of learning and thinking, with unprecedented opportunities for establishing relationships and building fellowship.” He suggested that we find “a Christian way of being present in the digital world” with “communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others.”  We were not merely to insert religious content into different new media, but we had to “witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preferences and judgements that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically. “

And then again, in anticipation of the 47th World Communications Day, he wrote “Social Networks: Portals of Truth and Faith; New Spaces for Evangelization.” He makes the point that we’re not just sharing ideas or information on social networks like Twitter and Facebook, but “our very selves,” and thus we have a chance to “reinforce the bonds of unity between individuals and effectively promote the harmony of the human family.”

To succeed, Benedict realizes, will call for a “new language” that works more effectively in these environments in order to bring the Gospel message where it is needed. Making the case for the use of imagination, signs and symbols, sounds and images, he urges those using social media to share “the profound source of their hope and joy: faith in the merciful and loving God revealed in Christ Jesus.”

There’s an irony in all this. Benedict is unlikely to have much first-hand experience with social media. He continues to write longhand, is not known to use a computer, and needed assistance with his first tweet.

Yet the master teacher is first a good student, and sensing the importance of the these new technologies, Benedict learned about them in order to create a theology of new media that’s firmly grounded in the truth and reality of the faith. He leaves behind a Church with a digital footprint that can be assumed by his successor, offering a firm foundation upon which the Church can continue to build. He did this because the message remains the same as Mark 16:15: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation.”

Only the medium has changed.