The Catholic Church in the Digital Age

Habemus Papam

It has been some weeks since mainstream media’s feverish coverage of the election and installation of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, unexpectedly stepped down on February 28th, citing old age and the increasing inability to carry out duties required by the Petrine ministry. In the twelve days the Roman Catholic Church had been so-called ‘operating on autopilot’, preparations were being made to transition the now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI from a public to a private life, as well as make way for a new leader.

I remember being emotionally invested in the papal election eight years ago, and I anticipated the same excitement for this round. But, this year’s event relieved the devoted of the grief that usually accompanies it; a six-hundred-year-old trend of popes reigning up to the day of their death had taken a turn that could only be described as “untraditional” — a big word for the notoriously conservative institution. So, when the conclave started on Tuesday, March 12, many with an established consciousness stemming from the previous one kept a watchful eye for white smoke. They would only have to wait for two days.

On the evening of March 13, just after five casted ballots, the 266th pontiff stepped onto the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to greet the quarter of a million faithful gathered to witness the event in person. The 76-year-old Argentine, with his relaxed and almost grandfatherly demeanour, seemed every bit the reserved yet approachable man the news outlets had quickly painted him to be. The positive change in journalistic tone is a welcome one, though, like every article out there, is best taken with a grain of salt.

Due to the evolution of my beliefs over the years, I felt a sense of trepidation for posting something Catholic in nature. However, the events surrounding Benedict XVI’s resignation, and the subsequent 2013 papal conclave seemed to have “catapulted” me back into the Church. I’ve only just subsided from a “Pope high”, but the following post will stay far away from the nitty-gritty of who believes what, and will focus on the emerging digital wing of Roman Catholicism.

Chimney Watch 2.0

Much like 2005, the 2013 papal elections were vigilantly covered by a slew of news channels from all over the world. Back at a time when the concept of the web-based blog still managed to avoid the claws of marketers, processing the individual voice would happen within the day, usually only by people who are directly affected by the turn of events. Its speed of circulation would probably be similar to — maybe, even slightly faster than — the daily newspaper.

On a personal level, much of the electoral experience relied on immersion before the documentation. The below photo, captured by Luca Bruno of Associated Press, illustrates this. Even in the sea of heads turned towards The Holy See, there is general awareness of surroundings, as evidenced by the one woman looking back towards the photographer. Phone models sported smaller screens, and there only appears to only be several visible bystanders, centre-left and bottom-left, looking down to a fluorescent glow. Most notably, the distracting bulbousness of back-lit gadgets do not dominate the frame.

The Catholic Church in the Digital Age

That was eight years ago.

Today’s delivery of news is treated with a greater sense of urgency. In the light of this recent major headline, journalists and the public alike tune into live updates via Twitter and frequently updated blogs hosted on official news websites. These resources have taken a step towards becoming convenient methods of accessing the news in real-time. Also, a system was created to help various media portals become easily accessible across various devices, which also took on a unity of their own. Standardised screen resolutions, commonly used megapixel values, fixed user experiences, the wider access to instantaneous publishing platforms as well as social networking websites, and companies holding monopolies over the world’s popularly-used technology would help concoct the following image photographed by Michael Sohn of Associated Press:

The Catholic Church in the Digital Age

Here is immersion during documentation, the concentrated gaze into the digital screen. The differences between the two images seem drastic, but Emi Kolawole begs to differ. In her March 14 write-up, “About Those 2005 and 2013 Photos of the Crowds in St. Peter’s Square”, she argues that the two images are not different technologically, but contextually and emotionally. Bruno’s photograph of the 2005 crowd was taken around the time of mourning, when the body of the late Blessed John Paul II lay in state for public viewing. Sohn’s, on the other hand, is a joyous capture of Pope Francis’ first speech on the balcony. She is also careful to point out the year of the first iPhone’s release (2007), and the already existing culture of digital cameras in 2005. Kolawole is right to clarify these finer details, but in terms of the bigger picture, the accessibility of standardised technology does not take away from the fact that digital immediacy has, over the years, become a prevalent social reality.

The digital era has also contributed to the dissemination and collective enjoyment of popular culture. During the conclave, a couple seagulls found themselves competing for the most comfortable perch atop the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. It was an amusing diversion that only lasted for some hours, but its digital presence left an imprint.

A Twitter account was made for the little creature, and another for his opponent, but the most famous handle for the feathered friends was the Cheetos-loving @SistineSeagull. Some even went as far as creating a handle for the chimney. Trite or not, it certainly reached memetic heights. Alternatively, some construed their presence as a divine symbol connected Pope Francis himself. The best interpretation I’ve heard is the connection to St. Francis. The inspiration behind the current pontiff’s regnal name is also famed for talking to birds. A poetic notion, indeed.

The Vatican’s Digital Assets

Aside from being the first pope to tweet, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI helped the Vatican gain a digital face. Prior to any awareness of social networking, the Vatican has only been represented online through an official website. Now, the cyber-Rome-Sweet-Home is enriched with Facebook pages of various languages, corresponding Twitter accounts, an official YouTube channel, and an official Flickr Pro account. A quick sift will reveal judicious maintenance, almost like that of a brand adhering to all of social media’s basic best practises. Content on its Facebook pages are consistently curated and organised. Twitter accounts solely serve to drive visitors to the official website. The YouTube channel displays a careful archive of the footage taken at various Church ceremonies and gatherings. The Vatican Flickr photostream is careful not to betray any traits of the person behind it, avoiding the use of the Favourites function, nor networking through its Contacts. Professional, through and through.

As I was watching various news videos of the papal election, what I found to be one of the more interesting coverages is of the Vatican interns, who update all these social networks. Danielle McMonagle and Sean Hudgins are two American students who have been given the chance to work alongside key team members of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, as part of a unique agreement between the Vatican and Villanova University in Pennsylvania. Both McMonagle and Hudgins work for four hours in the morning from Monday to Thursday, all while completing all their requirements for their academics — with an additional Italian language class put into the mix. In their interview with The Washington Post via Skype, they mention that although Pope Francis gets the final word, it is possible to try and provide him with insights and ideas formed from first-hand interactions with the members of the Church’s digital community.

Incidentally, it got me to thinking: what is the nature of community management within the religious sphere? Do they have to compose content plans for Facebook and Twitter? What’s the process of getting content approval — does the buck stop with their direct report, or do McMonagle and Hudgins have to wait for the “Papal Okay”? If applicable, how are brainstorming sessions like? Playful thoughts. Just playful thoughts.

Papal Applications

In the days leading up to the 2013 papal conclave, a few mobile applications have been released under, in addition to the applications made in conjunction with the existing digital assets, such as the Vatican Radio for Mobile. These developments are an effort to facilitate the transmission of the electoral results, and other Church events. Some cater exclusively for the election, such as “Conclave Alert”, the iPad-only application, which provides a comprehensive up-to-date overview of the ballots casted with their respective timings, feed aggregation, a list of the papabile, and a visual look into the voting process. More information about the application is available on their promotional video.

Others focus on the pontiff. The most popular one, — aptly named The Pope App, — was released on March 7. The app, which is a smorgasbord of papal updates, various webcam views, news updates, lists of upcoming events, images, video, live streaming, and an additional arm for, gives mobile users another way to keep the faith at pocket’s reach. At a hefty 18 megabytes — at least, for Android devices, — it commands a similar presence as the Church itself. I have this installed on my own phone.

Perhaps it was in their eagerness to deploy “The Pope App” well before the elections, it is possible that updates will roll out over the course of time. So, in the interim, I only have one main issue over its user experience. Seeing as the Church is an established global organisation, it is rather ironic that there is no option that converts Vatican Time to the timezone of the user. Because not everyone is instinctually aware of the hours at the Holy See, the Live function does not work outside Central European Summer Time. Other than that, it is a handy little papal guide.

So, if you want to know what’s goin’ on with Papa Frank, now there’s an app for that.

Ascending to the Digital Age

Over the last decade, the Church has taken to new media to further its role to professing to the numerous faithful. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had been known to establish his reign as the teaching papacy, and demonstrates great foresight in bringing the Catholic Church to the twenty-first century through the world wide web. (Incidentally, around the same time as — or even before — Barack Obama’s first campaign.) Even after only eight years in office, the effects of his work are becoming a more relevant link to the lives of many Catholics, displaying the Church in real-time, with the touch of a button. The gadget-wielding crowds at the start of Pope Francis’ papacy is already incredibly telling of the nature of his flock. The generation that relies on immersion during documentation are yet to bear witness to how he will lead this now-digitally-aware Church. Just make sure all phones and tablets are charged.

(All images are credited to their respective owners. Click on any image to go to its source.)


  1. Maria Celina

    @Sarai: Exactly, Sarai! For me, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI exercised great foresight in developing a social media voice to the Catholic Church, as an easy and immediate way to reach the people. So, far, Pope Francis has been using Twitter in a casual manner to reach out to You (i.e. the several million who follow him on the website), and, as you said, it would be great to see the possible increase in interactions future popes will have with the devout.

    @Lissy: You do have a point, Lissy. Before Facebook grew to become the giant it is today, taking photos with our mobile phones were of little to no use, and we very likely to pocket a point-and-shoot camera for our documentations. Even then, the stuff we would have taken back in the day lacked the immediacy that most applications have with their send-from-phone functions. But now that we do, we can’t get enough of it.

    Oddly enough, when I am travelling or attending concerts, I still bring my digital camera with me. The photos I take on it are just so much better. Also, I’m sure both those images above were taken with a proper camera.

  2. Lissy

    I saw those pictures and I showed them to my husband and he complained that they’ll never get a good photo with those iPhones and iPads, lol.

    Before the iPhone, there was little point to taking a picture with your phone. What, you’d text it to facebook? Even when my husband has his fancy camera with him, I’ll still take pictures with my phone so I can upload them to facebook NOW. Look everyone, it’s rabbit! Now’s much more exciting.

  3. Sarai

    I was so looking forward to this entry! When I heard that the new Pope had a twitter account, I was immediately surprised, but it didn’t take long for me to realize how much it made sense. Nowadays social media plays such a huge role in our lives. Everyone is everywhere. There is no mystery because the public demands the opposite. It’s very interesting to see how much it has infiltrated our lives. I wonder what another 5 years will look like for us.

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