Bishop of Rome, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Servant of the Servants of God and... Global Communications Focal Point?
It may already be happening.
Pope Francis appointed a working group of eight cardinals on April 13 to advise him on the governance of the Catholic Church and reform of the Roman curia. This move has many wondering what shape such reform might take. As a communications professional, my thoughts immediately go to something the Canadian communications genius and Catholic Marshall McLuhan once said about the papacy.
Several commentators have already invoked McLuhan's famous line, "the medium is the message," to describe the new pope's gestures of humility, such as refusing to live in the apostolic palace and washing the feet of young inmates. But three years before his death in 1980, McLuhan, who coined the term "surfing" and predicted the Internet as early as the 1960s, addressed how the papacy would be affected by a world of instant communication: "When things speed up, hierarchy disappears and global theatre sets in," he said.
This prophecy came true just a year later with the election of John Paul II, a rock star pope for modern media, if there ever was one. John Paul died in 2005, a year before the launch of Twitter and a year after the start of Facebook. Communications have only become more instantaneous, and the papacy has had to keep pace. The papal Twitter handle, @pontifex, launched in December 2012, is one reflection of this.
Additionally, Pope Francis has taken the interesting step of holding his daily Masses at the Vatican guest house. Earlier popes celebrated these Masses privately with their household staff and guests. Opting for a more open setting, Pope Francis has given himself a daily platform to address just about any topic he chooses in the context of the day's readings. The practical result has been that, by the time people in the United States are waking up, a story is waiting in our news feeds with the latest from the pope.
Vatican commentator John Thavis calls this development the pope's "mini-Magisterium." Another apt description might be that Pope Francis has decided to fill the media vacuum. This is profound not only in terms of exercising his ministry as a universal teacher and pastor, but also for his responsibility to promote unity in the Church and his choice to do so through mass communications. If every Catholic with access to modern media makes an effort to listen to Pope Francis on a daily basis, internalizes what he has to say and informs his or her actions with it, the pope becomes a pontifex maximus (chief bridge builder) like never before.
It also echoes McLuhan's prediction of bureaucracy giving way to communications.
We've seen other bishops follow versions of this model. For instance, to meet the challenges following his 2011 appointment to Philadeliphia, Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap., has simultaneously stripped back archdiocesan infrastructure while embracing his bully pulpit through digital media. USCCB President Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who has been tweeting and blogging for a while now, has a newly launched online presence. And one of the pope's eight new advisers, Boston's Cardinal Seán O'Malley, OFM Cap., was the first blogging cardinal in the United States.
But it isn't only about popes and bishops utilizing social media. For instance, the far-reaching quality of Pope Francis' message is tied directly to the men and women of the Catholic press who cover him. Special praise goes to Vatican Radio, which has been on hand to cover the Masses at the Vatican guest house, the administrators at News.va, who promote what the pope says via social media, and Catholic News Service, which has combined web video and a traditional forum -- the pope's Wednesday General Audience -- to generate truly creative and attractive content that any pope would be pleased to have at the service of his message.
And of course social media aren't only in the hands of a few professional gatekeepers. Everyone has access. As a result, these platforms have transformed the Church into a landscape of blogs, tweets and viral content where real conversations happen and the public at large gets a pulse and a picture of life in the Church. Pope Francis seems to recognize that his role is to embed himself at the heart of this universe, evangelize it and draw people closer to each other and to Christ.
For more on Pope Francis' approach to communications, here's a recent reflection by Archbishop Claudio Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
(CNS Photo/Paul Haring)