|Screen shot showing Pope Benedict XVI's Twitter account|
Tuesday, 4 December 2012
By setting up a Twitter account the Pope is like a general leading from the front -- The virtual world is a battleground
By joining Twitter, it seems to me that the Pope is sending out a clear and decisive message to all Catholics. He is telling us to not be afraid of the new means of social communication. In fact, as he has pointed out in the past, Christians have a duty to be present on-line – to bring the Gospel to all corners of the earth, even into the virtual world.
In his Message for the Church’s 45th WorldCommunications’ Day, published last year, the Pope specifically reflected on what he termed "a phenomenon characteristic of our age: the emergence of the internet as a network for communication." In that message, the Holy Father compared the revolution in social communications to the transforming nature of the Industrial Revolution – it is something that will bring immense benefits to mankind, but may also cause grave harm to many of the most vulnerable in society.
One of the dangers of the new media highlighted by Benedict XVI in last year's message is the fact that on-line interactions tend: "to communicate only some parts of one’s interior world”, which risks “constructing a false image of oneself, which can become a form of self-indulgence.” It is precisely these limits of the social media – the temptation of not being authentically human and of absenting oneself from the real world – that led to the creation of the Guild of Bl Titus Brandsma, which aims to help bloggers meet face-to-face (in a church or a pub!). The blogosphere and Twitter feed can be inauthentic places – where anger is often encouraged, masks are worn, and humanity is somehow abrogated.
By joining Twitter, which has had a bit of a bad press in recent times here in the UK, the Holy Father is clearly showing us that we should not be afraid to enter into the hustle and bustle of the digital world. Despite the fact that Twitters (or Tweeters?) have a reputation for falling out with one another, for being obsessive insomniacs, and for pushing the boundaries of good taste and even for sometimes using technology to bear false witness, the Pope obviously thinks Twitter – and blogging in general – can be used as a force for good.
In his 45th World Communications’ Day message, the Holy Father positively pointed out that: "the new technologies allow people to meet each other beyond the confines of space and of their own culture, creating in this way an entirely new world of potential friendships." In so doing, the internet allows us to interact with people we would never normally associate with – it is a whole new mission territory, so to speak. (Maybe, one day, cyber-space will require its own Vicar Apostolic?)
The Pope reminds us that the new media forces us to ask again "who is my neighbour?" First, we should discern whether those we are communicating with are "real", or whether they are "false images" created by a damaged person. Secondly, now that it is easier to communicate with unknown people on the other side of the world than with one's next-door neighbour, how do we care for and love our virtual neighbours? How to we ‘proclaim the truth in love’ on-line?
In last year's message, Pope Benedict XVI stressed that as the new forms of social networking encourage the exchange of ideas, hopes, values, and concerns, then a Christian on-line presence is essential. He wrote: “it follows that there exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world: this takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others.” He added: “To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preferences and judgements that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically.”
One of the most important ways that Catholics can witness to their faith on the internet, according to Benedict XVI, is as witnesses to the truth. This commitment to stick by the truth, which sets all men free, “does not derive its worth from its 'popularity' or from the amount of attention it receives” – we must proclaim the truth in love, even if it means that many of our friends will not ‘like’ what we have to say.
The Holy Father seems to fear that in attempting to be popular, young people might try making the truth ‘acceptable’ by ‘diluting it’. A thick-skin is needed on the internet – especially if bloggers choose to allow others to ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ their comments. In that sense, I believe that the Pope will use his new Twitter account to send out courageous tweets – he is like a general who prefers to lead from the front. Tweet away, he seems to be saying, but make sure that what you publish conforms to the teaching of the Church, for only then will your tweets be seed for Eternal Life.
Of course, as useful as the internet might be in helping Christians spread the Word and hand on the Faith, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that “the Gospel demands (emphasis mine) to be incarnated in the real world and linked to the real faces of our brothers and sisters, those with whom we share our daily lives. Direct human relations always remain fundamental for the transmission of the faith!” We should never exchange the truth of God for the lies that can often possess man-made 'realities'.
In his 2011 World Communications’ Day message, the Holy Father asked those who try to announce the Gospel on the internet to do so in a way that: “is at once respectful and sensitive, which stimulates the heart and moves the conscience; one which reflects the example of the risen Jesus when he joined the disciples on the way to Emmaus (cf Lk 24:13-35).” Just as Our Lord gently drew forth the truth from the hearts of his disciples when he spoke with them on the road to Emmaus, so should Christians use the internet as a means of journeying with the world – gently leading it to the realisation that Christ is Risen!
One of the wonderful things about blogging and micro-blogging is the fact that it truly is a means of measuring the real sensus fidelium. Amongst Catholics, there has been an immense growth of blogs that are dedicated to orthodox and / or traditional expressions of the Faith, whilst those dated and ‘progressive’ Catholic sites – such as the UK’s recently established ‘Call to Action’ [a 'grass-roots' forum for what seems to be open dissent] – hardly register any interest at all. (It appears that practically none of the discussion pages on the ‘Call to Action’ website has yet received more than 100 views.) There is a thirst for faith, for truth, for real love out there – and the washed-up and watered-down liberal version of Catholicism is not what the people want. It is not, I believe, what God wants, either.
In a very Vatican II kind of way, the Holy Spirit is speaking through His people, 'the apostolate of the laity' – much to the chagrin of those who substituted said Council with ‘the [false] spirit of Vatican II’. Catholics are voting with their feet when it comes to on-line interactions, and they are choosing to be more traditional and orthodox, not less so. They want beauty and joy, not Marxist ideology and austere looking blogs. They want the full expression of the Faith, to be challenged to give up sin and take up the Gospel, not a lecture by fellow believers on how the Church should conform to the spirit of the age! There is a battle for souls in the virtual world, and having the Pope join in the fight will cause both Hell and ecclesiastical dissenters to tremble!
A few months ago, or more, I opened a Twitter account. Like the Pope, I am yet to Tweet. The fact that Benedict XVI has now become a Twitter has inspired me to try and make use of my own dormant account. Already, the Holy Father has over 282,000 followers – and I am one of them! It would be a good witness to our Catholic faith, I think, if as many Catholics as possible follow the Pope @Pontifex. The Dali Lama currently has over 5 million followers, whilst Barack Obama has over 24 million fans … Surely, the Pope should attract more followers than either of them!