Rome — “Where people are, the Word of God must be,” a priest who had come here from Washington state for a conference on the Church in America told an Italian media outlet.
That was the simple explanation why one of the most learned and reserved holy men on the planet was putting his finger on Twitter.
When the pope, at the end of his weekly public audience at the Vatican, hit send on his first post on the social-media platform, two grandmotherly women from the Philippines were sitting near me. “Pope — Twitter!” they said, looking at me with radiant smiles. “Thanks be to God!” There was a language barrier, it turned out, so I couldn’t press them about the significance of the event. But their gratitude suggested an appreciation for another catechetical opportunity, for the chance to reach more souls with the Good News. The pope was following the practical philosophy William F. Buckley Jr. expressed in another context: If there is a platform, it might just be the place for our ideas. It might just be the right additional venue for reaching new eyes and minds and hearts.
In the case of the papal tweet, a top priority is conversion. The work of evangelization is something Catholics talk about a lot these days, especially in terms of reconverting hearts, of renewing a true love of Christ — even, or especially, among those who already profess to be Catholic.
But another priority is education — refreshing people’s understanding of what it is the Catholic Church teaches. Monsignor Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, tells me that Twitter has already provided a service internally at the Vatican, aiding a Church that is trying to learn what people most misunderstand, by what they are most frustrated, and by what they are most disappointed. “Many people don’t really understand our primary concerns,” Monsignor Tighe says. And it turns out that “you can say quite a little bit in 140 characters.”
As it happened, the first papal tweet — the one the press was glued to — wasn’t necessarily going to educate anyone or throw Saul off his horse as he was checking his iPhone. “Dear friends,” the successor to Saint Peter tweeted, “I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.”
That was by design, Monsignor Tighe explains, “to highlight that this is about connectivity, reaching out to people, and expressing genuine gratitude.”
Another papal tweet, released later that same day to much less fanfare, was a question and answer that focused on prayer. “How can faith in Jesus be lived in a world without hope?” @Pontifex inquired, and then answered: “We can be certain that a believer is never alone. God is the solid rock upon which we build our lives and his love is always faithful.”
Answering a question on how to be “more prayerful when we are so busy with the demands of work, families and the world,” one wise guy started trending with his response: “Relax u r pope,” which is all part of the interconnectivity of the medium. The actual papal answer, by the way, was: “Offer everything you do to the Lord, ask his help in all the circumstances of daily life and remember that he is always beside you.”
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.