As the College of Cardinals gather to celebrate the Mass pro eligendo Papa in the basilica of Saint Peter, this morning, faithful from across the world will be tuning in to join them in prayer and in curiosity. Since the announcement of Pope Benedict’s resignation in early February, the Holy See Press Office, together with the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican Radio, CTV – the Vatican TV service, and other communications agencies for the Catholic Church, have been servicing a massive worldwide audience, keen to know every conceivable detail of the conclave process.
What is new, even since the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005, is that this is being done more and more through electronic media. Social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter are providing regular updates from the sources, as well as information from journalists. Most importantly, though, a new dialogue has formed between the Catholic faithful and the media, as snippets of information are gathered together from across the Twittersphere and from comment pieces on blogs and websites.
My own experience of this is the increase in followers on Twitter I have experienced in the past month or so, and the retweets I’ve had – even from the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington! We’ve also seen daily updates from those Cardinals (see my list) who themselves are using Twitter and social media as a means of communicating with their faithful back home, as well as engaging in the wider interest that an event like this conjures up.
This quiet social media revolution means two important things. First, we are not reliant on the coverage provided by any particular media agency who – like it or not – almost always has a slant to put on an event like this. Those remain useful, but they are no longer unique. In fact, I would say that one net effect of this is that most agencies have realised that it simply won’t wash to employ negative naysayers, when such a body of articulate positivity so clearly exists. Catholic Voices is perhaps the clearest UK expression of this, with the appointment of Fr Robert Barron as a commentator on NBC in the US.
Secondly, we are all engaged in the work of evangelisation, which has a particular fervour at this time. Through the access we can all have to social media, to blogging, and even to comment boxes, we are all in a position to engage effectively with the world, communicating the essential truths of the faith through this amazing process. We have got the world’s attention, and it is up to us to write the script.
Over the next few days we will surely be challenged in prudence and charity. The words of Bishop Mark Davies, I think, are perhaps the best guide for us: ‘not punditry, but prayer!’ When we engage in this digital continent, let that be our motto – because engaging in a politicised polemic doesn’t only give way to false impressions of the Church’s life, but it also misses one fantastically important opportunity: to speak of Jesus Christ, and of the joy of living in him.