Pope Francis calls the Internet ‘a gift from God’

January 23

Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Jan. 15. (Vincento Pintovincenzo /AFP/Getty Images)

Mark Pope Francis down as an Internet optimist.

He declared his unambiguous support for the Web as a tool that brings humanity closer together in a papal statement Thursday.

"A culture of encounter demands that we be ready not only to give, but also to receive," Francis said. "Media can help us greatly in this, especially nowadays, when the networks of human communication have made unprecedented advances. The Internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity.

"This is something truly good," he added. "A gift from God."

Francis certainly isn't the first pope to embrace technology. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, was the first pope to use Twitter - and John Paul II lauded the Web in 2001.

But John Paul II was more plainly pragmatic in how he described the purpose of the Internet, which was not nearly as widely used in his later years as it is now. He spent his World Communications Day speech describing the Web less as a tool for unity and more as an instrument for spreading Christianity. "The Internet can offer magnificent opportunities for evangelization if used with competence and a clear awareness of its strengths and weaknesses," he said.

Francis undoubtedly has the same goal in mind, but lives in an era when the Web and social technology is a given. This is a guy who has shown he will speak to anyone, at any time, in any language.

"The desire for digital connectivity can have the effect of isolating us from our neighbors, from those closest to us," the papal statement said. "We should not overlook the fact that those who for whatever reason lack access to social media run the risk of being left behind. While these drawbacks are real, they do not justify rejecting social media; rather, they remind us that communication is ultimately a human rather than technological achievement."

Pope Francis' cuddly comments can look pretty stark compared with those of Pope Benedict in 2009. That's when he came under fire for lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson, claimed ignorance of the man's past and then wrote this whopper:

"I have been told that consulting the information available on the internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news."

In reality the Vatican has for years - well before Francis - been debating how to modernize its communications.

It has long run large radio and TV operations but had a crazily small communications office for the world's largest faith organization. Reporters have been frustrated by a press office run by one, albeit friendly, Jesuit and press releases to global media released only in Italian.

In part because of the afore-mentioned debacle involving Bishop Williamson, efforts were stepped up.

In 2010, the Vatican spent $6 million to create a high-definition mobile television studio to better broadcast images of the pope. Around that time the Vatican also announced a partnership with Google to create a Vatican Youtube channel. Then in December 2012 they launched @pontifex, a Twitter feed that now has close to 10 million followers in at least six languages.

The rub is, the whole attitude was still "we go to the world. It wasn't we look into the world, it was the world comes to us," said Rocco Palmo, a well-known blogger on Vatican and U.S. church news. "Williamson was the bright line. This is a big learning curve for the whole church, which is hierarchical, it's not used to people talking back."

Palmo says Pope Benedict doesn't get credit for being the one under whom the Vatican began these discussions, in part because the German theologian never stopped being known for his quarter-century as a doctrine-enforcer (before he became pope). Benedict was isolated from how tone-deaf he really came across, said Palmo, citing the former pope's 2012 decision to pick the theme of "silence" for the church-run World Communications Day.

Or several years earlier launching a social media platform called pope2you with a written press release.

Palmo, who was asked to run the Vatican's first-ever social media conference in 2011, says demand is way up in the Francis Era for the social media training he does for Catholic clergy. Which in a sense seems divinely shaped when you consider, Palmo says, that "this is a guy who can't work a CD player." As archbishop in Buenos Aires, he said, Francis was quoted not long ago as saying if a device has more than two buttons on it, he doesn't know how to work it.

"It's not what you say but how you say it, and the church is still learning this. And that Francis has had this 11-month ride, you couldn't put a dollar sign on it. Apparently there is something this 2,000-year-old church, with its sense of pauses, sense of rhythm, calendar, can teach the 24-hour news cycle."

brian.fung@washpost.com, michelle.boorstein@washpost.com

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Brian Fung · January 23