The Church and Social Media, The Anchor, November 15, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting into the Deep
November 15, 2013

On October 19, I attended the international Catholic New Media Conference held this year at the Archdiocese of Boston’s Pastoral Center in Braintree. There I heard the tremendous keynote address by Msgr. Paul Tighe, a priest of Dublin who serves in the Vatican as the Secretary for the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

Entitled “The Vatican and Digital Media,” Msgr. Tighe not only presented the recent history of what the Vatican has been doing, but described how the Church as a whole has to respond to cultural changes to propose the Gospel effectively today.

He began by describing the astounding success of the Pope’s Twitter account (@Pontifex), which has almost ten million followers in eight languages and the highest re-tweeting percentage of any Twitter account in the world. More important than what Pope might have said initially on Twitter, Msgr. Tighe said, was the fact that “he was there.” The Pope was signaling to the universal Church, “This is a global sphere that we must be present in.”

The Pope was therefore giving recognition and saying “well done” to those who were already “bringing the Church into that arena” and giving encouragement and saying “this is worth doing” to those who have not yet entered the digital continent.

After the Pope launched his twitter feed, Msgr. Tighe related, diocesan communications officers from across the world told him, “’Finally, I can tell my bishop this is for real. This is serious. It’s not a fad. It’s not going away. The Pope is there, you better think about it.’” That’s a message that parishioners can share with their pastors who have not yet made social communications a personal and parochial priority.

Simply put, the savvy use of social media — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, comboxes, smartphone and tablet applications so heavily used by the young and young at heart — is perhaps one of the clearest indicators as to whether a parish or a diocese is fundamentally about maintenance or mission.

“Increasing numbers of people are spending significant portions of their life engaged with social media. It’s an existential dimension of their lives,” Msgr. Tighe declared. “If the Church isn’t present in the digital arena, we’re going to be absent from their lives.”

The Vatican’s strategy, however, goes far beyond symbolic recognition and encouragement. It’s also trying to help Catholics across the world use the social media to pass on the faith.

Msgr. Tighe described the development of news.va, which brings into one convenient website the information from all of the Vatican media outlets — Vatican television, radio and newspaper, texts from the Pope, documents from various Vatican departments, press releases, and more.

Prior to the development of news.va, Msgr. Tighe joked, “you needed a [doctoral] degree to navigate your way around the information. Now we bring it all to one page in five languages.” This was done to allow people to find out what is happening in the Vatican far more easily, as well as to enable Catholics to use that information to spread and defend the faith.

The most illuminating part of Msgr. Tighe’s address was when he analyzed the cultural transformation that is occurring through the social media. This is something that all Catholics should grasp and to which parishes, dioceses and faithful need to adapt if we’re going to reach our contemporaries with the Gospel.

Much like traditional missionaries sought to inculturate the Gospel, expressing it in language and concepts that people could understand, likewise the Church today is called to inculturate our message within the digital continent, giving the Word flesh and images as we bring it to our fellow digital inhabitants.

“The biggest challenge we face, particularly for my generation in the Church,” the 55-year old priest declared, “is that we grew up with the idea of the pulpit: I’m here, I talk, you listen. The microphone let us reach further. The radio took us even further. The TV let you see us as well as hear us. But we were at the center and you were out there consuming.

“New media is different. I speak, I talk, I reflect, I say something. If you like it, or disagree enough with it to comment on it, or you have something to add to it, you might share it and that’s how it gets out there. For us, there’s a whole learning about how we communicate. It’s interactive and it’s participative. If I say something, I need to be ready to take something back. That’s how I might get interest. That’s how I might meet someone at his level.”

The social media is changing the way people interact with each other, how we form relationships, friendships and community. That’s forcing the Church to adapt how we seek to bring about how we bring about the communion with God and each other that is the Church. Social media requires us to engage people’s questions, comments and feedback, knowing that a discussion in a public forum conducted with Christian coherence, respect, and civility may bring many third parties to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Catholic faith — and sometimes to conversion and faith.

The basic orientations of the social media to form relationships and friendships, to search for truth and information, to share one’s life and ideas and to follow, all have “theological resonances” in Christianity.  “The Church is a network,” Msgr. Tighe said. “We are a community of communities. We already have an easy fit to the digital arena.”

At the same time, he added, “We need to raise our game.” We need to do more than be present, but with the grace that comes from God, set a standard for excellence in the social media, at the local and global level, that can lift others up.

The social media is not fundamentally about the “technologies,” Msgr. Tighe concluded, but about “heart-to-heart communications,” and that’s something in which the Church should always excel.