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.




Pope Tweets @Pontifex

Papa Bene is on Twitter with the account @Pontifex, and with all the skill the Roman curia usually musters on PR and technological issues, he hasn’t logged a single Tweet–not even a greeting, not even “Hello nOObs”–as of this posting. No Tweets are due until … December 12. Way to go, VIS! Can we just put Fr. Barron and Brandon Vogt in charge of social media initiatives for the Church and be done with it? Please?

Here’s their official announcement:

“The Pope’s presence on Twitter is a concrete expression of his conviction that the Church must be present in the digital arena. … The Pope’s presence on Twitter can be seen as the ‘tip of the iceberg’ that is the Church’s presence in the world of new media. The Church is already richly present in this environment – there exist a whole range of initiatives from the official websites of various institutions and communities to the personal sites, blogs and micro-blogs of public church figures and of individual believers. The Pope’s presence on Twitter is ultimately an endorsement of the efforts of these ‘early adapters’ to ensure that the Good News of Jesus Christ and the teaching of his Church is permeating the forum of exchange and dialogue that is being created by social media. His presence is intended to be an encouragement to all Church institutions and people of faith to be attentive to develop an appropriate profile for themselves and their convictions in the ‘digital continent’. The Pope’s tweets will be available to believers and non-believers to share, discuss and to encourage dialogue. It is hoped that the Pope’s short messages, and the fuller messages that they seek to encapsulate, will give rise to questions for people from different countries, languages and cultures”.
“Part of the challenge for the Church in the area of new media is to establish a networked or capillary presence that can effectively engage the debates, discussions and dialogues that are facilitated by social media and that invite direct, personal and timely responses of a type that are not so easily achieved by centralized institutions. Moreover, such a networked or capillary structure reflects the truth of the Church as a community of communities which is alive both universally and locally. The Pope’s presence on Twitter will represent his voice as a voice of unity and leadership for the Church but it will also be a powerful invitation to all believers to express their ‘voices’, to engage their ‘followers’ and ‘friends’ and to share with them the hope of the Gospel that speaks of God’s unconditional love for all men and women”.
“In addition to the direct engagement with the questions, debates and discussions of people that is facilitated by new media, the Church recognizes the importance of new media as an environment that allows to teach the truth that the Lord has passed to His Church, to listen to others, to learn about their cares and concerns, to understand who they are and for what they are searching. … It is for this reason that it has been decided to launch the Pope’s Twitter channel with a formal question and answer format. This launch is also an indication of the importance that the Church gives to listening and is a warranty of its ongoing attentiveness to the conversations, commentaries and trends that express so spontaneously and insistently the preoccupations and hopes of people”.
The first tweets from the Pope’s handle on Twitter will be given on 12 December, Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Initially tweets will be published with the Wednesday general audiences, although they may subsequently become more frequent. The first tweets, on 12 December, will respond to questions put to the Pope on matters of faith. The public can send questions between now and 12 December in the languages listed below. The official Papal handle is @pontifex.
In addition to English, tweets will also be published in the following languages:
Spanish @pontifex_es
Italian @pontifex_it
Portuguese @pontifex_pt
German @pontifex_de
Polish @pontifex_pl
Arabic @pontifex_ar
French @pontifex_fr

Videogames and the Family

This is an expanded and updated version of a story that originally appeared in the National Catholic Register.

We all want to do right by our children: make them happy, keep them healthy, and raise them to be fine adults formed by the values of our faith. Having a nonstop spigot of toxic mass media sludge pumped into our homes 24/7 can make this a daunting prospect.

Catholic families really only have two options: either opt out of the media culture completely, or put a filter on that spigot so that only the good things get through. Neither choice is foolproof. We live in this modern society, and opting out of electronic media—movies, television, games, music, cell phones, computers and the internet—is not merely challenging: it’s probably unhealthy. For better or worse, this is a wired world, and our kids need some basic orienteering skills if they’re going to navigate it.

A recent Pew survey found that 97 per cent of children play video games. The Kutner-Olsen study (conducted at the Harvard Medical School Center for Mental Health and Media and published as Grand Theft Childhood) revealed that children who didn’t play games of any kind tended to have more social problems. Parents may see games as a mind-sucking waste of time that turns normal people into button pushing zombies, but for kids they are a challenge, a bonding opportunity, and a topic of discussion. In contrast to the passive nature of watching television, gaming is active, putting the user in control of how events unfold through exploration, interaction, and problem-solving.

Like any other media, some games are good and some are bad.  And while we often talk about violent games because they are of the greatest concern, it’s important to remember that the majority of games are completely benign: sports, racing, strategy, puzzle, music, and arcade far outnumber those with violent content.

Maintain Control

The question is: do you even let games in your house? Many families already have a PC, which can also do double-duty as a game machine, but your kids would rather be playing a Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, or PlayStation3. Teens and adult gamers tend to prefer the Microsoft Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 because they offer high-octane action titles and superior graphical performance.

If you’re looking for an all-around family console, however, it’s hard to beat the Wii’s ease of use and large library of family friendly titles. Once you have a game console in the house, the most important thing is controlling access. In our household, we limit game time to Fridays and Saturdays during the school year, and maintain a 1:1 ratio of reading time to game time. (In order to earn an hour of game time, a child has to log an hour of reading time.)

When I explain our limitations on game time and access to parents, some are flabbergasted, often remarking that their kids “would never stand for that.” What a fascinating statement. If you do not have the parental authority to regulate your child’s access to media, then you have no parental authority at all.  The console should never be placed in a child’s bedroom, and kids shouldn’t have free access to it.

Fortunately, all three game machines have parental locking codes, which prevent them from playing titles with certain ratings unless a password is entered. Thus, you can bar all M-rated titles from your home, or lock the system so that you can approve when, what, and for how long your kids play.

Going Online

Another decision is whether or not to allow teens to have an online gaming account. (Don’t even think about it for younger kids, unless it’s a completely family friendly title like Club Penguin or Wizard 101.) This can be a subscription-based PC game such as World of Warcraft, or a general console connection service like Xbox Live. The important thing to remember about these account is that actual people are on the other end, and a significant portion of them are not playing with a full deck.

You have almost no control whatsoever of who your children are interacting with, and unless you lock down the communications controls pretty tightly, it is possible for complete strangers to make contact with your kids. It’s possible for people to “friend” your child in a game session, much like they would on Facebook. They can then send messages and even media files and back and forth via the console system.

Since most systems now integrate things like Twitter and Facebook support, we’re seeing a massive convergence of gaming and social networking. No one is quite sure what this all means for privacy and security, but it can’t be good. If you do allow your kids to have online accounts, you need to limit any personal information that’s included in their gamer tags, and definitely do not connect online accounts to social networking sites for minors. (By the way, your minors shouldn’t be on social networking sites anyway, but that’s a whole other story.)

One other thing to remember: most systems allow for in-game voice support, which means any gamer with a headset attached to his controller can be heard in your living room if they’re in a session with your child. Think about that for moment. I’ve heard what goes on in these sessions, and the language is about as bad as you can imagine. Just turn all voice support off. Period. They do not need to be talking to anyone anyway. If you’re savvy enough to lock it down so it’s “friends only,” and they only friend people they personally know, then fine. Otherwise, just turn it off.

Choosing Games

Picking the right game can be tricky, despite all the tools available for evaluating content. I It’s harder than choosing the right TV show or movie, since games are often large and complex, and may contain elements that are only seen in certain circumstances. Although there is no shortage of completely inoffensive games, many releases are awash in violence.

That violence has a fairly wide range of expression. At one end of the spectrum, you might bounce on a character who then disappears in a puff of confetti, while at the other end you can find mutilation and even torture. In between those extremes, you’ll find everything from mild mayhem to realistic and gruesome dismemberment. As a rule, sex and gore warrant an M-rating, but T-rated games are able to show a fair amount of violence as long as they keep the blood to a minimum. You can refer to yesterday’s post for more information on figuring out the ratings system.

In our house, for instance, we debated allowing our son to play military shooters in the house when my son was getting older Although the action primarily involves shooting enemy soldiers, the player is clearly a hero, the violence isn’t particularly graphic, and the entire experience is rich in historical detail. As series like Call of Duty drifted far from that formula, and started wallowing in nihilism and senseless violence, those games simply were no longer allowed. No teenager should be playing the Call of Duty series any more.

Each child is different and, depending upon his or her age, may or may not be ready for this kind of gameplay. On the one hand, it’s the modern equivalent of playing war, particularly since multiplayer modes allow people to compete against each other. One the other hand, parents may reasonably want to avoid any game which puts a young person in the role of killing another person, even an enemy. It’s not an easy call to make. Do you draw the line at non-explicit violence, or allow only violence only against non-humans (aliens or other creatures, for instance)? How can we reconcile games which include any depiction of killing with our faith? Wouldn’t we do better to avoid such things altogether?

Every parent has to struggle with these questions individually. Certainly, violence is part of even benign entertainment: there is no protagonist without an antagonist. Aristotle’s six principles of drama begin with mimesis (the imitation of an action) and end with katharsis (the purgation of excess emotions). Games function by the same rules: they engage our emotions, and then provide the release.

In the stormy world of adolescence, games may actually play a number of important roles, providing socialization, problem-solving, contained fantasy, and an outlet for tension and troubled emotions. Making the right choices for each child at each stage in their life, however, is challenging. There are tools—such as ratings, descriptors, content-rating web sites like, and parental lock-out codes—that can help, but in the end, there’s no substitute for engaged parenting. Sit down, play with your kids, find out what they’re doing and seeing. Maybe you’ll even wind up as gamer yourself.