Pope Benedict XVI's message for the 44th World Communications Day, which was released over the weekend, finds the pope at his most brilliant, inspiring and dynamically attuned to the ever-shifting state of the world. Okay, maybe I'm just excited as someone who works in media and for the Church, but the message really is a must read. Even though it's geared toward priests, it makes some stunning assertions about the potential for the Church and social media.
The pope makes it clear the urgency and necessity for being online, where so many people spend their time, especially young people. He quotes from Corinthians, "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel," and we immediately know the sort of stakes he associating with this.
The pope makes repeated references to social media's capacity for dialogue, which suggests social media can be a tool for lovingly bridging division between people. This is an almost radical thought when one considers the seemingly bottomless capacity of the Internet to fuel toxic exchanges that quickly devolve into namecalling and questioning the other's integrity. The Church could be a tremendous leaven in such a setting. I say could largely because so much online discourse dealing with the Catholic Church is marred by this same toxicity and absence of charity.
To that end, the pope notes that its inadequate merely to be online. He notes that the Web and social media are replete with a wide array of voices and ideas and that the Church has a responsibility not only to be present where the people are, but to make a difference by proclaiming the Word in a living, dynamic way.
Again, Pope Benedict aims his message squarely at priests. Since this is the Year for Priests, this is apparently the most important communications-themes message he currently has for the presbyterate. Coming directly from the pope to priests, some in the media have interpreted this message as something of an order: You will go online. You will blog.
One can only imagine how Catholic life even at the parish level would change if every priest were on Facebook, maintaining a blog or otherwise pastorally present online. Forget the bulletin column. Also, in cases where priests are generationally muddled when it comes to social media, there would be the opportunity for the stereotypically younger, Web-savvy parishioners to provide "digital catechesis" to help their pastor honor the pope's wishes on this matter.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of priests -- and the Church as a whole -- embracing the world of digital media is that this is all just the beginning, the foundation. As technology continues to evolve, the already-present Church can grow with it and continue to improve in its role as a leaven.
As a side note, we're often reminded that we can do better, even when we think we're keeping up with the curve. For instance, our office was recently made aware of a post on the America Magazine blog by Jesuit Father James Martin (a priest making exemplary use of social media) in which he expressed his amazement that the USCCB Web site offers daily video reflections on the day's readings. Of course, we all knew that the Conference has been providing these reflections for years, but it was amazing to learn that we hadn't spread the word to where Martin and others would have heard of this great digital resource.
It all goes back to the need to embrace social media and embrace it well. I'd like to make some sort of illustration about the need for the parts of the Body of Christ to communicate with one another, but Pope Benedict still said it far better. Even though World Communications Day won't be observed until May 16, the pope has given us a vision worth pursuing right now.