Loss of meaning, inability to connect, struggle to build meaningful relationships.
Theological resonances. Message and Person of Jesus.
Mystery. Encounter is personal - no manipulation.
Trust - avoid complacency, professional and graced.
We need to positively challenge people to be their best.
Remarks - Introductory thoughts
Thank you very much for this opportunity to be with you. It’s very important for our council to get an opportunity to engage with people like you.
Sometimes when the media look at what is happening with the Church and with its communications, there is a tendency to focus on the center, to focus almost exclusively on initiatives that are centralized. But our Church is never centralized. Our Church is what happens in Rome but our Church is also what happens in local communities.
Social Media is redefining how we understand local communities, how that localness, that friendship, that closeness, that sense of being gathered around a theme or a topic or an interest group, will remain in some sense the parish of the future, the digital parish will be where people cluster around shared interests and shared ideas.
That is sometimes called more the periphery, the local, is essential to the life of our Church. If the Church were ever to become simply what happens at the Center, then we’ve lost it, even though at times, the center gets a lot of the attention.
The second reason I’m pleased to be with you is that Archbishop Celli has told all of us at the council that we should be busy traveling, because we travel to learn. We learn from the people who, in many ways, are well ahead, doing different things, working with different platforms, experimenting with different forms of engagement. When we propose something at the Vatican, we have to be fairly sure it’s not going to blow up in our faces (joking).
Otherwise, I’d be sent back to a parish in Dublin very quickly; that might be very nice and very good for me and for others as well (joking). We tend to wait until things are a little bit established and the ideas are clear, because if we blow up it’s going to blow up very publicly and on a massive scale.
I’m conscious that it’s very often that people who are doing the day-to-day, who are learning by doing, who are experimenting, who are trying new things [that we can learn from]. I want to encourage you to do that and I want to encourage you to share your experiences with us so that we learn together.
I’m always nervous when I’m supposed to be giving a keynote. A keynote sounds as if you know what you’re doing (joking). I always come back to when I was starting in University, we won’t say how long ago (joking), I used to say 20 years, then 30 years, and it’s now approaching 40 years ago, I remember one of my friends saying to us “what is education?” His definition of education is going from cocksure ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty (joking). Going from thinking you know everything to realizing how little you know. I always think of poor Donald Rumsfield in this area. There are the known knowns and there are the known unknowns and there are many unknown unknowns there for us as well as we work in this area.
So what I’m going to share with you is not the definitive keynote, the answera. I’m going to talk about some of the things we’ve done, what we’ve learned by doing them, and then try to move out from there to a more theoretical introduction. I’ll probably speak for about 40 minutes and then allow about 20 minutes for questions. I have a timer on myself, because being Irish, we go on! (joking).
You all know the @Pontifex Account. Our Council was part of a group of people that helped to convince the authorities that it would be a very good idea that the Pope would be present in Twitter. The interesting thing there was people needed to prepare a briefing document so that the Pope could consider it because it wasn’t done without him knowing about it. It was either going to be his initiative or it wasn’t.
Pope Benedict’s intuition was, “I don’t need to know all about the technologies, but if you’re saying that by using this platform, I would have the potential of bringing a message of hope, of Good News, to an increasing number of people, who might not always be on the radar as far as I’m concerned. If that’s what it’s about, go for it.” That was it. His intuition was this is a means with which we can reach other people, we can engage them, and we can share the Good News of the Gospel.
Twitter was particularly easy to think about because one of the things we wanted to say from the beginning was that Twitter would work to convey meaningful and substantial ideas. People were wondering how you could share complex theological ideas in 140 characters. But the key teachings of Jesus, by and large, many of them fit easily into 140 characters. So we had this thing with our biblical traditions, with a lot of our synthetic teaching ideas, that it would be possible to say something meaningful and substantive in the Twittersphere (or the Twitterverse, depending on where you come from). That was the substantive justification on our part for getting involved.
Related to that was another thing. This was going to be symbolically important. More than what the Pope initially might say on Twitter, he was there. This was saying to all sorts of people that it’s important that we are present.
One of the interesting things – and this is in some sense wrong – that the Pope getting on Twitter got more media coverage and column inches than perhaps the Pope’s visit to Lebanon or Cuba. In some ways, that is wrong, because what is happening in Cuba and in Lebanon at the substantive level were much more serious, but we got a lot of attention for going on Twitter, and (joking) if you’re on the right side of unfairness, that’s great. So we got more attention than we needed. For us, what I thought this going on Twitter was really about was that this was saying to the Church globally that this is a global sphere that we must be present in, and let’s think about what it means to be present.
So in one sense what we were saying was recognition. It was saying ‘well done’ to those who are already there, who are bringing the Church into that arena on their own to begin with. It was also a word of encouragement, saying to others who maybe were slowing getting there, this is worth doing. We heard from communications directors around the world who said, ‘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.’ We’ve seen over time that the only voices should not be those of bishops or pastors or priests – it has to be the voice of the whole community. It’s been nice to see many of those come in, making their own personal contribution and bringing their own personal style to this arena.
The responses, as you know, have been strong. We used to say ‘the numbers don’t matter’ as we desperately rushed to check the numbers (joking) at the same time. At the moment, we’re approaching ten million followers when you add all the language platforms together.
There are many Interesting little insights. The Latin account: Someone there said, “let’s do a Latin Twitter feed,” partly because the people who run the Latin department enjoy playing around with short synthetic sentences. Latin is one of the most synthetic languages that exist. One can say a lot in very brief terms. They were going to enjoy the technical challenge of often finding a Latin that was suitable for the concepts. They have now garnered 170,000 to 180,000 followers. Many of those followers are not believers; they are people who are studying Latin. They are teachers of Latin who are now being exposed to the thought of the Pope because of an interest in Latin. Does that make sense? So we’re reaching, and we’re finding, that we don’t always know who is going to be interested in the Pope’s Twitter, but we know it’s important that we’re there.
The second part of this, and we need to be honest, that at the beginning – many of you are aware of this – there was a huge negative response of some of the people in social media to the Pope’s presence. Some of that was very clearly people saying, “let’s launch a Twitter bomb. Let’s oblige them to take the Pope out because the response is so negative.” With the Irish, one doesn’t tell us what we cannot do (joking). We were staying there. More significantly, it was also about the people that might not want the Pope in social media don’t particularly want the voice of the Church in any arena. So we need to keep ourselves there and be conscious there’s a marketplace of ideas.
I promised to read all the initial messages to the @Pontifex hashtag and review the questions. There was a huge amount of negativity. But some of that negativity was a way of expressing frustration and genuine concerns. Does that make sense? You could learn something and understand why some people were irritated and annoyed with the Church and what the main upsets were, what was keeping them away, and what was making them deaf to our message, because they were revealing a lot of themselves, even if what on the surface seemed extremely negative comments. I’m not saying they all had that dimension. It was worth reading the comments. It was also wonderful for my vocabulary (joking), in a range of languages. I don’t get much chance to use the new words, thankfully, but it’s there (joking).
The other thing that was very important was how people – believers and non-believing people of good will generally – said “we can’t let this negativity win out. We also have to ensure that this domain isn’t going to become just a negative arena. We have to build up a positive community. If they’re engaged in bringing it down, we’re going to engage in expressing an appreciation.” That’s where we want to thank people like you, around the world, who on your own initiative said “Let’s get in there and say something positive, and let’s dilute the toxic materials that are in there and try to make this a good environment.”
Particularly because we’re conscious that many parents would be concerned about their children being on social media. We are happy that they should be looking at @Pontifex but we don’t want them to be exposed to inappropriate material. We have a responsibility to try to keep that environment positive.
We got a huge amount of appreciation. We got appreciation from people who said things like one blogger “now that I’m in social media, and the Pope is now there with me, I kind of have to behave a little bit better!” (joking). We had other people who were saying “Thank you for coming in and raising the tone of the debate. Thank you for making this something serious.” And that wasn’t just from believers.
One of the weaknesses in the @Pontifex strategy is the interactivity. What level of interactivity can we get? And I’m going to talk about this more as we continue. The Pope follows himself on Twitter. Following the other accounts is a way to alert people of the accounts in the other languages. It’s very difficult to draw lines regarding who you would follow and who you would not. And how meaningful it would be to say that the Pope was following a particular account. What we’re trying to think about is that the level of interactivity comes not from the center, but from the local. What we want to begin to think about is what would it look like for the Church to build a capillary network in which people would say, I saw someone commenting or responding there, I think I have something to say to them to encourage them. So that the Church becomes interactive using that platform which is the @Pontifex account, with all the activity that it generates, for us to being to work on how to engage meaningfully with that.
We’ve recently begun to get slightly into the business of analysis. We’re not going to overanalyze this. The @Pontifex launch was amateur almost – we didn’t have big marketing strategies behind it. It worked because of a genuine sense that this is something authentic. What we are learning is that the pattern of retweeting is very gratifying. We’re told that for a public figure that @Pontifex has probably the highest level of retweeting that you get in terms of percentage of followers. That means the message is not only being received by the people who follow @Pontifex, but also by those who receive it because of someone’s retweet. That’s when we’re reaching people who might not ordinary choose to expose themselves to Gospel messages or to the thought of the Church. That’s where Archbishop Celli uses the image of scattering the seed. One doesn’t know where it is going to end up. One doesn’t know whether it will land on fertile group or hostile ground. But the possibility exists that a word or message that will always be rooted in the Gospel is going to touch somebody’s heart.
We’re interested in the patterns. We became informed of one little mistake. If the Pope’s tweets are published at midday in Rome, that meant for people on the West Coast of the United States, they might not get it. We are aware that if people receive the message sometime during your working day then you might retweet it. We’re learning from that sort of thing on the timing of the messages.
The hashtag idea has been used three times. We used it around Rio. The one in which we were particularly pleased was the #prayforpeace for Syria. Because there was an event that the Pope really cared about. The Pope wanted to attract the world’s attention to this idea that we should stop and pray for peace. There had to be a more imaginative response to the things that were happening in Syria that just responding with further violence. He wasn’t necessarily getting the attention and traction of the mainstream media that we might have wanted. So the hashtag #prayforpeace almost became the point of contact for Catholic communities and believers around the world to get that message out there. I’ve talked to some of the people at the Bishop’s conferences who said, “the Pope made the announcement on a Sunday and the event was going to happen on the following Saturday. Most people had already been to Church on Sunday, so how do we get the message to them. Our parish bulletins were out and given. The hashtag created this almost subversive network of people who were getting the word out there, even though it wasn’t getting a huge amount of play in the mainstream media. So maybe we’ll learn together from that. I’m interested in your ideas after the presentation.
What did we learn? This is a serious question for those that work in Church organizations. One of the things we learned, for all our planning, is that we were lucky that we went with the generic title, @Pontifex. So that when Pope Benedict stepped down, which we had not foreseen was going to happen, we didn’t have to let go two million followers or reposition everything. Actually the way that @Pontifex closed down the tweets as the Pope stepped down was a digital realization of what was happening. It was reflecting the reality that was playing out and that the world was witnessing in front of us.
The other learning was on internal preparation. One of the things we failed to do was to address all the senior people who were interested in this but who had never heard of Twitter, who weren’t aware of the type of negativity. When the negativity came through, they had no idea that this was coming. They seemed to think that Twitter was something we invented to expose the Pope to ridicule (joking). That was our mistake for not having explained and not having prepared people. One of the terrible things that happened was that an Italian newspaper decided to print the most difficult responses that had come to the Pope. People who never would have seen them, because they didn’t know what Twitter was, or perhaps they weren’t very sure what a computer was (joking), were suddenly exposed to the full toxic nature sometimes that social media can be. That wasn’t helpful and was our mistake in not preparing them.
News.va was a plan that we came up with in the Vatican where we said that we need to provide better information, better hard texts and idea to people who are working in the blogosphere. The theme we were given was “feed your base.” “There are many Catholics and believers out there who are interested in speaking for you and bringing your message out to a broader public. You need to provide them with reliable, good, useable materials.”
So what News.va does is it takes all the news from the Vatican, that once you had to go find on Vatican Radio website, on the Press office website, and you needed a degree to navigate your way around (joking) the information. Now we bring it all to one page in five languages. You find quick translations of what’s happening – the texts, pictures, images and sounds. We want this to be multimedia and also social. It’s there to be shared, tweeted, it’s all prepared there to make it easy for people. Speed there is very important.
We’re reviewing News.va constantly. So if you’re using News.va in some format, if there’s something about it that you find sticky or that you don’t like or if there’s something not working, let us know. We have a very good company working with us there. We’re lucky because we were going to do it internally at the Vatican but we decided to go with an outside company and put it on the cloud. When the Pope stepped down, we would not have been able internally to go from one server to eight servers in minutes like we were able to do through the outside company.
So please tell us what’s working, what’s not working, what would be more helpful, what wouldn’t be, and we will try to do it.
We now realize that News.va is the portal, the website. We have about 50,000-60,000 visitors daily. They are not huge numbers. But News.va is the mothership. We use it to launch different things.
We decided that we needed an app. We developed ThePopeApp and I hope you’ve all seen it. ThePopeApp means that you can watch the Pope at Mass in the morning and you can watch general audiences and events live. One person facetiously said it’s “the Pope in your pocket” (joking). This Pope is in nobody’s pocket (joking). It’s a way of allowing accessibility. Now that we have a Pope who is exciting public interest, ThePopeApp is a way of making sure that what he’s doing is available to people to those that have a developed interest.
We’ve worked with Facebook (in conjunction with News.va). We’ve experimented. News.va is taking materials and putting them on Facebook. Texts and News: not much interest. Spirituality: a huge interest. So news.va has a presence on Facebook.
I received a message last night from Thaddeus Jones, who is really the person that ought to be thanked for running this. TJ said that yesterday he posted the Pope’s video message to the Philippines’ New Evangelization Conference. Some of you may have seen it. It’s the first prolonged message of Pope Francis in English. TJ put it on Facebook and we saw 250,000 shares in three-and-a-half hours, without any type of promotion. He posted it and this is what it got. This is the type of response we’re getting out there. It shows the appetite. We must get better at doing this. Please send us your ideas.
We’re developing microsites within News.va. There is a huge interest in the Pope’s spiritual reflections at morning Mass and we’ve developed themes around that. For trips like Rio and Assisi we’ve developed microsites.
All of that material, if you’re wondering is their copyright or do you have the right to share it, share it, use it, and ask forgiveness afterwards. This is Good News we want to share with people. That’s our primary instinct. There are intellectual property issues and we need to think through those as a community and we will do that in a way that is also attentive to the needs of an alternative community. There are no easy solutions. But let’s do this by serious debate and discussion. It will be the most profitable way to do this for all of us.
Guiding insights, intuitions and reflections
ery often I speak to people that don’t know well the new media environment. One intuition that we always say as a mantra is to not talk about this as a revolution. We’ve been told that term revolution is passé, so we talk about the transformation that is happening with media and communications in general.
The transformation is cultural rather than technical. My nephews and nieces are learning in a different way than I did. They are expressing themselves in a different way. They are getting information in a different way. They are forming relationships and creating community in a different way. That is challenging all of us, because the change is not just in technologies, but it’s a change in communications itself.
The transformation is still going on. We don’t know where it’s going to end. Nobody can tell us yet because it’s the user who is very often determining where we’re going or not going with these developments. So we can’t plan it all. Facebook is here today; it may be gone. It may already be gone for some young people. Twitter is a great platform. Will it last? Let’s know that we’re dealing with a changing reality.
The other thing is that we’re involved. It’s changing us. It’s changing the Church in different ways: how we form identity, how we form relationships and how we create community. That is affecting the nature of the Church in terms of its own manifestations. Pope Benedict was very strong on that, saying to us that as theologians we need to reflect on what that was doing for us, and how we would have to rethink our expression, because theology is always a reflection on faith in the light of our culture. Our culture is changing.
One other insight we say is that something people refer to communications technologies as means. I always say no, they create a new environment. It’s a network. We’ve used the idea of a digital continent. How can we be effectively present on a digital continent?
As the Church became aware of Africa and Asia, of Latin America, its missionaries became aware of the local cultures and languages so that they could be inculturated missionaries. What could we learn from the people there? What in their culture was already very compatible with Christianity? What needed to be changed and nuanced? So we need this sense of inculturation.
Three weeks ago Pope Francis spoke to our council (PCCS) and he used a lovely term. He said that Christians in social media are becoming citizens in a digital arena. As citizens in any arena, we bring our faith with us. And he said that the primary job for us, in some ways, is to be sure that we are citizens that fit in, that don’t stick out from the landscape, who have a profile which is compatible with that landscape, also bring their faith into that arena.
Two other things that for you (CNMC participants) are easy but for other audiences, I need to emphasize that the digital environment is real. It’s not just virtual, not just games, a fad – it’s very real. Increasing numbers of people are spending significant portions of their life engaged with social media. It’s an existential dimension of their lives. If the Church isn’t present in the digital arena, we’re going to be absent from their lives.
An interesting little critique I got recently. Someone from an older generation – mine and older – might say, “Isn’t it great that the Pope is on Twitter.” Someone from a younger generation might say, “What’s he saying?” It’s not just the fact of being there. It’s also about what we’re doing there and how that presence translates.
The digital arena is different. We can’t just do what we always did. We can’t just take a newspaper article put it on a website. That’s not necessarily enough. Take my pictures and just put them there. We need to rethink what we’re doing. The word we use, almost to the point of jargon, is language.
We also need to learn a new language for the digital continent. Language isn’t just about words. Language is primarily about the way we have our conversations. The biggest challenge we face, particularly for my generation in the Church, 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 lets 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 their level.
We have to engage the questions. Some people say, “that’s too labor intensive. We can’t be spending all your time in one little conversation.” But most of these conversations are happening in public forums, so a good conversation or a good debate between you or me and another person in which we’re teasing out issues of faith is not necessarily a private conversation in the way it once was. Who knows who is watching in or listening in or trying to make sense of what is going on?
The Pope to our Council three weeks ago said what we should be doing as believers in the digital arena. He said three words for why we’re there. We’re there to listen. We’re there to converse. We’re there to encourage. He gave a very strong idea of people in our world today who are struggling in all sorts of ways and who have need for a word of encouragement.
The next thing is the modes of communication. As a Church, we’ve done texts very well - encyclicals, letters, interviews. They are very important. My training is as a theologian. I’ve worked all my life in theology. For me, texts are hugely significant. Parsing and analyzing works is what I do. What I have to realize is that in a digital arena, the amount of time that people are going to spend working with a text, at the beginning, is low. We need to share with them words, images and sounds.
One little image here is that before, as a Church, before we were literate, we were very good at communicating with art, with music, with stained glass, and with beauty in general. One of the things we need, I think, is people who are creative, who can engage not just the heads, but also the hearts. A lovely little thing from Pope Francis three weeks ago – part of our job is to warm people’s hearts. Some people are finding that it’s a cold, harsh, difficult world. Lift them up, give them hope, give them something that provides them pleasure.
Vocabulary is another issue. Many of the words we use, including the word evangelization itself, and the words reconciliation and salvation are not entry-level words. Let’s not presume when we share icons that people know what we’re talking about any longer.
I was teaching in Dublin until six or seven years ago. As a teacher, you learn quickly to not presume the word Lent immediately is understood by everyone. And that’s in Ireland. Don’t presume all of our categories are immediately relevant. I remember someone joking that to a young person, Vatican 2, might be the Pope’s license plate on his second car (joking).
We need to be careful, especially for people like myself who don’t want to lose the theology, who don’t want to lose the language of liturgy, that this is entry level. If we engage people, they may come with us on a journey on which they may eventually become exposed to rich ideas. We’re not abandoning our language, but we are saying that we need to speak the language that reaches and touches peoples’ hearts.
A related issue, and that is presence. Most of our best communication is not just with our words but it’s with who we are. That’s threatening, because it means that often we’re communicating more when we’re not attending to it than when we’re actually intending to communicate. So people judge us by what they see or by what they understand about us. So, therefore, witness has always been a very privileged way by which we communicate the Gospel. The great way of witness is a sharing of ourselves.
Pope Francis three weeks ago said (to the PCCS), what we have to think in the digital and social media is we’re on a journey with other pilgrims. Everyone is on this journey. We shouldn’t be way ahead of others or we shouldn’t be way behind them. We walk with them.
Where is the pilgrimage taking us? He checked himself here, because he started to say something like, we need to bring Christ to others. But then he thought it may be better to say that we need to bring others to meet Christ. We accompany them on the journey. We don’t get in the way.
To do that, we have to have a renewed sense of who we are. Our own authenticity, coherence and respect for other people. It’s the way we behave. It’s the kind of things we say. It’s the patience we display. It’s the tolerance we exhibit. It’s the civility we aspire to that might engage others so that they think there’s something genuine and worthwhile about this person who is engaging with me. Not for our own sakes, but so that they may feel drawn to listen and to engage with what we have to say.
Here I would like to talk about our term ‘devolved interactivity.” This is where the Church needs to see what the debates are and at various levels, we take responsibility to engage with other people in a language that’s appropriate to them, in a culture and context that works for them, so there’s not always just the Pope talking, but it’s each of us bringing our voice to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” We need to be able to authentically speak of faith and our beliefs to people we engage with including on social media. That’s the subsidiarity. Let’s not go to the center on everything; let’s do things locally.
A lovely idea from Pope Francis a few weeks ago is the idea of home. We need to keep this idea in our communications about the Church being at home with people. The landscape of new media, or as some people call it, social media. We’re told never say new media to young people because you’re revealing your age. This is just media for the vast majority of younger people. Stop saying new media.
The social media landscape is peer-to-peer, it’s free and it’s open. That’s not the immediate description of the Church at times (joking). What we need to realize is that we’re in an environment in which authority is different. Authority is still important, but we live in a time where celebrity has almost replaced authority.
Pope Francis is a celebrity as well as an authority. We have to unpack what that means. There are benefits to that because there are people that will listen to him as this intriguing figure who may not have been willing to listen to him as the Bishop of Rome, who may never have heard of that concept, but are willing because he is capturing the public’s imagination. Authority, broadly, is that we have to earn it rather than simply claim it.
The important thing that we need to watch is that we need to bring an element of experience into the social media. A lot of the conversations on social media have a need for a type of conversation draws on experience, tradition, wisdom and ideas. If we can think about the concept of friendship itself, which is at the heart of so much of the interactivity on Facebook, we have things to say about what lasting, enduring and life-giving friendship is. We have something to say, and we have an experience that is worthwhile, that is needed, and that’s an expertise.
One of the terms we sometimes use is of giving the Internet a soul. I think we need to be careful with that term. It’s not that we are the soul of the Internet. No, we try to provoke discussions and debates that get people reaching into deeper discussions. Does that make sense?
When we say, giving a soul to the Internet, we want to make sure that there is a true, integral, humanity expressed on the Internet. That there is space for spirituality, for questioning, for doubt, for learning. By our receptivity to those, we create a space for the Internet to have a soul, but we’re not the soul. Every human being has deeper questions and we need to create the forum, a framework, and a lack of fear that will allow people to do that meaningfully.
We need to show people what’s happening within our churches rather than simply telling them about it. The narrative and fundamental idea of a lot of people’s vision of the Church has been framed by all sorts of events, depending on different cultures, some of which are very negative. We need to show them something of the life of the Church, particularly something of the life of the Church at the local level where people are cared for, where people are supported, where people are strengthened, and where people are generous. Let’s show them something about that.
Social media allows us to do that in an invitational way. We are constantly trying to say to people, come with us and join with us. Let’s remember that we always have this draw towards communion and towards community. We draw people also toward service.
There’s the incarnational finality of a lot of what we’re doing. The Word was made flesh, it didn’t stay word only. The flesh, the embodied loving and caring for people, which I think we can express in various ways in social media, which can’t remain exclusively in such an arena.
One of my friends who works in the charity arena keeps saying to me that they’re using social media for media fundraising campaigns. He says, “a like is not a donation” (joking). We need to engage and draw people into the fullness of participation and involvement.
Why am I hopeful?
I am extremely hopeful. Look at what people are doing in social media: relationships and friendships; searching for information; sharing ideas; and following. They are all fundamental human realities all of which are part of our religious landscape.
What we need to do is see the good in what people are trying to do to connect with others, in searching for sometimes trivial information. We can help them search for something more.
We see that many people in social media get great satisfaction in sharing, in giving of themselves and of their i
ideas. That tells us that human nature has not changed. That same human nature leaves us with receptivity to the Gospel.
Following is a key example. A lot of social media following is so narrow. I’ll follow those people that tell me how great I am or that my ideas are great or that she agrees fully with me. It’s an echo chamber. As one English politician said, I love nothing better than a hot bath in my own prejudices (joking). We all like that. We need somehow this willingness to broaden the following, to be challenged. Sometimes the best friend is the person that tells me that I’m not great, that I can do better.
Pope Francis again spoke about people who are captured by a loss of meaning, an inability to connect, and struggling to build meaningful relationships. That’s where we, at the human level, have so much to contribute. Then the theological resonances.
We’re lucky. We are bringing people towards Christ. We believe the ultimate answer to those human yearnings, those human longings, are in the person of Christ. Not simply a message, but in a person. In a person who is real and present. It’s our privilege, it’s our fortune to have that conviction about what the encounter with Christ has done for our lives, how much it has enriched our own experiences, how much it has strengthened us, how much it has encouraged us, helped us to grow in different ways, and it’s a desire to share that with others.
It’s not a desire to count numbers or to make them one of us, imperialism, it’s the message that this has been so life-giving, so positive for me, I couldn’t be true to myself without wishing to share it with others. I want to give, as Saint Paul said, a reason for the hope that is with me.
That’s our thing – we’re bringing people to Christ. In doing so, we’re walking on the ground of mystery, where a person encounters Jesus in conscience. That’s something extraordinary personal. The Pope has said that the encounter is personal. We can’t manipulate it. We can’t engineer it. We have to allow the mystery to happen when Christ touches the other person and respect the integrity of that encounter.
Therefore, for me, it’s about our own trust in Christ. I don’t want to become complacent and just say we don’t have to worry, do nothing, Christ will do it all. Although ultimately that may be true. I think we need in this social media ministry that we’re professional. We do well what we do. We make the better video. We raise our standards. We get our messages well. We think through the psychology of what we’re doing. We recognize all the time that we’re graced. That if good things happen, as Father Roderick said this morning, they happen through the grace of Christ.
Precisely because of the grace of Christ we need to raise our game. Not because it depends on us. But because we want to witness well to the Christ who is so generous in everything He does with us. So the insight is that we learn by doing. Innovate, then think about it, and then look at the mistakes, then tell us about the mistakes as well as the things that went well.
Network learning – we need to learn together, share the ideas, talk about them. If I have made a mess of something in Ireland, because we didn’t think it through too well, that could be helpful for someone in Australia who is thinking through something similar. Let’s get the network going.
The Church is a network. We are a community of communities. We already have an easy fit to the digital arena, which people describe as the Glocal. It’s a term that is falling out of fashion now. It’s global and local at the same time. Most people when they are on social media they are looking for things that are very close to them and occasionally they are looking at wider questions. We need to have a Church that responds at those different levels. We need to rewire what we do and reallocate the resources that we have. We need much more collaboration.
Fresh from the presses. Yesterday, Pope Francis sent a message for the 30th anniversary of the Vatican TV service. He made a very interesting little statement there in which he said “convergence, not competition must be the strategy of social media initiatives.” Convergence, not competition. That’s both technical convergence and much more the convergence of heart. It’s not my show, my operation, my network, and my followers. We bring them together because we belong to a Church and we work together.
We need to take risks. Let’s not be afraid to take risks. There’s a saying in the Irish language (translated) which means “praise young people and trust them, and they’ll rise to the occasion.” So we need to have that investment and encouragement. That’s difficult. It’s trust and learn.
Also, have no fear of mistakes. We’ve talked about learning a language. Anyone that has ever tried to learn a foreign language has learned that in the early stages you make the most dreadful and horrific mistakes. And if you don’t make them, you don’t learn. And if you never want to make mistakes, you’ll never learn to speak the language.
So let’s not be afraid to make mistakes, tell others about them, learn from them, and then raise the level of our game from them.
Then the final thing we need to think about, more when I’m talking to those with managerial responsibilities, is that we need organic development. We need to see things grow and see which things flourish. Every week I have people coming into us at the Vatican who want to sell us the definitive plan and strategy that can do it all. No. No master plans. Why? Because they’re not good ideas. They don’t correspond to our reality which is not centralized. And it’s also that nobody knows what’s happening as things keep changing. So we say, “no gurus, no master plans.”
Another thing we say is “travel light.” Use whatever platforms are emerging (Instagram, Pinterest), try them, and see if they work. The Economist Magazine recently gave a bit of advice on social media. It was very interesting what it said. It recommended in social media technology to be promiscuous (joking). Try everything that is out there – the various networks, platforms, technologies. But don’t marry any of them (joking). So you keep that flexibility.
I taught bioethics. In bioethics there was one rule we always had. Avoid the technological imperative. Just because there is a machine that can do X, Y, Z, doesn’t mean that you have to use it. Sometimes people end up being overtreated in medicine because it’s not human any longer. It’s the machine, rather than the person, that drives the medicine. In media, let’s know about, play with, experiment, but it’s not about the technologies, social media is about heart-to-heart communication.