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Why Pope Francis may be meeting with so many tech CEOs

Pope Francis holds talks with Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the Vatican on how use communications technology to alleviate poverty. (Video: Reuters)
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On Monday, the Bishop of Rome met with one of the high priests of Silicon Valley.

During a trip to Italy, Mark Zuckerberg attended the wedding of a friend, went for a run past the Colosseum, hosted a Q&A session -- oh, and met with the Pope. At the Vatican on Monday, the Facebook founder and CEO, along with his wife, Priscilla Chan, presented Pope Francis with a model of his company's solar-powered drone designed to beam Internet connectivity to less developed parts of the world. They also talked about the philanthropic initiative Zuckerberg runs with Chan.

"We told him how much we admire his message of mercy and tenderness, and how he's found new ways to communicate with people of every faith around the world," he wrote in a post on Facebook. Zuckerberg, who famously wears gray t-shirts most of the time, wore a dark suit and tie for the occasion.

The meeting marked at least the fourth technology CEO who has had an audience with his holiness since just the beginning of 2016. Within a 10-day span in January, Pope Francis met with both Apple CEO Tim Cook and former Google CEO and Alphabet executive chairman Eric Schmidt. And in February, Francis met with Kevin Systrom, Instagram's CEO, who presented the pope with a "hand-curated" book of Instagram images, according to an ABC News report at the time. In a post on the photo-driven social media site, Systrom said the two "spoke about the power of images to unite people across different cultures and languages."

Pope Francis's leadership of the church has been noted for its openness and his concern for the needs of the poor. And he appears to recognize the power that tech executives have to help spread ideas, mobilize young Catholics and empower the undeveloped world -- but also to shape the tools that can also disrupt how we relate to one another.

"Real relationships with others, with all the challenges they entail, now tend to be replaced by a type of internet communication which enables us to choose or eliminate relationships at whim," Francis wrote in his 2015 encyclical letter, "thus giving rise to a new type of contrived emotion which has more to do with devices and displays than with other people and with nature."

Whether through the devices they make, the software they create or the social-media platforms they run, these CEOs do more than manage individual companies. They lead some of the entities both best positioned for connecting people digitally and most responsible for the potential perils of our tech-driven world.

And in past messages, Francis seems to both applaud that power and worry about it. In 2014 remarks on World Communications Day, Francis said "the internet, in particular, offers immense possibilities for encounter and solidarity. This is something truly good, a gift from God." Yet he also acknowledged that "the speed with which information is communicated exceeds our capacity for reflection and judgment, and this does not make for more balanced and proper forms of self-expression. The variety of opinions being aired can be seen as helpful, but it also enables people to barricade themselves behind sources of information which only confirm their own wishes and ideas, or political and economic interests."

Earlier this year, in a speech delivered two days after meeting Cook, Francis again noted the promise and peril that technology and social networks hold.

"The digital world is a public square, a meeting place where we can either encourage or demean one another, engage in a meaningful discussion or unfair attacks," he said. "The internet can help us to be better citizens. Access to digital networks entails a responsibility for our neighbor whom we do not see but who is nonetheless real and has a dignity which must be respected."

It probably doesn't hurt that some of these CEOs are big philanthropists -- Cook and Zuckerberg, for instance, have pledged to give away the wealth they have earned, and Schmidt has created a family foundation focused on the environment, an issue Pope Francis has also written about extensively. Schmidt is also the author of a book titled "The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business," which he co-authored with Jared Cohen, a former official at the State Department who heads up Google Ideas and accompanied Schmidt on the papal visit.

Francis, of course, has embraced technology in ways that sharply depart from his predecessor -- while he has labeled himself a tech "dinosaur" who does not use a computer, he did so during a Google Hangout. He has a Twitter account that has nearly 10 million followers. And in March, a few weeks after his meeting with Systrom, he joined Instagram with an account that now has more than three million followers.

Read also:

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