The Vatican’s decision to enter this highly interactive forum, giving people throughout the world — people of any faith and of no faith — the ability to ask questions of the pope, is unprecedented. It may also be the most countercultural use of new media yet. The pope seeks to renew faith and teach, but he also promotes silence, even while he adds tweets on the feeds of 1,103,000 followers, and counting.
“Silence is an integral element of communication; in its absence, words rich in content cannot exist,” the pope explained in a World Communications Day message earlier this year. “In silence, we are better able to listen to and understand ourselves; ideas come to birth and acquire depth; we understand with greater clarity what it is we want to say and what we expect from others; and we choose how to express ourselves,” the message continued. “By remaining silent we allow the other person to speak, to express him or herself; and we avoid being tied simply to our own words and ideas without them being adequately tested. In this way, space is created for mutual listening, and deeper human relationships become possible.”
Besides giving pointers for a more peaceful and fully present life, this approach could transform Twitter itself.
In response to the news that the pontiff would be joining Twitter, all kinds of colorful comments were tweeted at his newly opened account, in many different languages, some of them using various kinds of untraditional and not-appropriate-for-all-members-of-the-family modes of expression. Assuming they didn’t all come from those who couldn’t resist after a night at the pub, the pope might actually have a secondary success: encouraging peace and silence on Twitter.
“There are no awards given for being wrong first,” a friend of mine used to caution as blogging was becoming popular. Likewise, although your hot tweet, laced with venom, might get retweeted in the moment, there’s not much to be gained from a character point of view.
“Taking your time, reflecting on what you’re doing,” has a place in life and even on Twitter, Monsignor Tighe notes.
Call it the new improved slower media, first marked by the pope’s elongated launch of his first tweet. Monsignor Tighe likens it to the “slow food movement,” in which people seek to know where their food is coming from and take the time to enjoy it.
It’s cool, calm, collected, civil, and Christian. Ultimately, wherever you are communicating, you are communicating with people. “It’s about relationships,” Monsignor Tighe says. “There’s even room for the golden rule there.”
The pope’s decision to tweet, in other words, may have less to do with getting with the times than with bringing the gospel to our times — cutting to its essence 140 characters at a time.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.