On Dec. 12, 2012, 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. 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.
A teaching papacy
The decision speaks to the fundamental characteristic of Pope Benedict’s reign: it was a teaching papacy. Blessed Pope John Paul II was larger than life: a charismatic figure who moved millions and changed the fate of nations. Pope 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 love, hope and 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. 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 thing about him, his Church, or his message.
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 85-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 Christ’s, the voice of the Risen Christ, in the person of his vicar, was vital.
Before his Twitter debut, Pope 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.”
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.”
What is called for to succeed, Pope Benedict realizes, is 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. Pope Benedict is unlikely to have much firsthand 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, Pope 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.
Thomas L. McDonald writes about Catholicism and technology at www.godandthemachine.com.