NEW YORK — Leave it to an 85-year-old man who wears ruby-red slippers and speaks fluent Latin to lead a 2,000-year-old Church into the new media.
About half a dozen U.S. archbishops and cardinals followed Pope Benedict XVI onto Twitter in 2012.
In May, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the New York archbishop and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, started tweeting Bible verses, saint quotations and reflections on joy and holiness to what is now an 80,000-plus person following. Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley took to Twitter to oppose an assisted-suicide ballot question. And Bishop Alexander Sample of Marquette, Mich., who will become the archbishop of Portland, Ore., April 2, live-tweeted the annual meeting of the USCCB.
Today, nearly a third of the 35 U.S. Catholic archbishops are on Twitter. At least as many bishops are as well.
Church leaders have taken to new-media tools like Twitter and Facebook to reach people who would otherwise not hear their message in the pews, said Mark Gray, an associate researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University and co-author of a November 2012 report on new-media use among U.S. Catholics.
The report found that 62% of Catholic adults are on Facebook. For the under-30 set, 80% use social media. And a third of all Catholics said they wanted to read blogs by their bishops and pastors.
“Over the past several years, the Church and her leaders have been able to use social media in response to Pope Benedict’s call to the New Evangelization to meet Catholics and non-Catholics alike where they already are: on the Internet,” said Amanda Lindley, spokeswoman for St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson, apparently the first archbishop in the United States to start tweeting in August 2010, when he was 66.
‘The New Parish Hall’
“Facebook is the new parish hall. It’s where people gather now, like after-Mass hospitality, but without the coffee and donuts. They sign onto Facebook to ask for prayers, to share links, to get news about what’s happening in the Church and the world,” said Mary DeTurris Poust, a Catholic author and blogger at Not Strictly Spiritual. “So if the Church were not present there, we’d be missing a huge opportunity to not only talk to Catholics in the pews, but to reach those who might never set foot in a church.”
The Church’s turn to Twitter, which was launched in 2006, could be considered fast and slow, said Matt Warner, a Register blogger and a Catholic social-media expert. “I think the Pope and official Vatican and Church social-media accounts have a legitimate excuse for lagging a bit,” Warner said. “They are in charge of guiding a 2,000-year-old barge of a ship. They think in decades and centuries — and for good reason.”
But that shouldn’t stop local parishes and dioceses from taking the lead, Warner added. “It is the individuals that make up the Church’s local leadership that have been particularly slow in seizing the opportunity,” he said. “But we’re coming around.”
Poust, a panelist for a USCCB blogger workshop last fall, said the Church is in step or even a step ahead of other religious organizations in recognizing the evangelistic potential of Twitter.
“People think of our Church as slow-moving, but just look at the ways we have adapted the means to get out our message over the years,” Poust said. “We have always been willing to embrace the next new thing in communication — from the earliest days of putting Scripture down on illuminated manuscripts to printing books to Catholic newspapers to television to 140-character tweets.”
A Challenge for Bishops
But Twitter remains a challenge for bishops. “Twitter has a different tone to it than many of the ways bishops are accustomed to communicating,” Gray said.
The 140-character word limit may be a bit daunting for those used to carefully unspooling their teachings in homilies and encyclicals. Besides space, speed could be another issue, Gray said. Younger users expect instant responses and real-time conversations, while bishops may have neither the time nor the digital stamina to keep up.
“So there has to be balance, an understanding that it’s necessary, but it’s not everything,” Poust said. “Simply getting a one-line reflection out on a line from the day’s Gospel or a link to a weekly column or even a photo from a particularly moving event is enough. People appreciate small glimpses of their shepherd in action.”
Another challenge: adapting to the personal nature of social media without diminishing their stature as Church leaders. “The biggest challenge they face is being authentic, not being afraid to be themselves,” Warner said. “And it’s a hard line to walk when you are also representing the Church in such a significant way. But it’s possible.”
Social-media harbors other hazards as well, exposing bishops to negative or nasty public comments.
Nonetheless, Warner and Poust expect that more bishops will venture onto Twitter and Facebook in the future.
So far, in terms of sheer numbers, virtual “followers” often lag far behind the real ones. The Boston Archdiocese has 1.9 million Catholics, but just 9,386 people follow O’Malley on Twitter, at the last count.
But there are better ways to measure the impact of social-networking sites like Twitter, where the reach of individual messages can be exponentially broadened through retweets and hash tags.
It can be enough to have a demonstrable impact, especially on divisive public-policy issues, where a small number of voters could sway the outcome, according to Scot Landry, the archdiocesan secretary for Catholic media. Out of three million votes cast, the assisted-suicide question could have passed had 34,000 voters changed their minds. Landry said that Cardinal O’Malley reached at least as many through his daily tweets, some of which were retweeted by people whom themselves had 10,000 followers.
One of the most effective tweeters is Cardinal Dolan, Warner said. Some bishops use Twitter to expand the digital footprint of their blog posts, YouTube homilies or online newspaper op-eds. But Cardinal Dolan’s feed is a steady stream of snippets and sayings from Scripture and the saints — all tailor-made to the hyper-abbreviated medium that is Twitter.
“He gets it and uses it well,” Warner said. “He will be able to reach a lot of people and shape the image of the Church in a positive way by using these communication tools well.”
Another Twitter star is Archbishop-designate Sample, who, at 52, is the youngest U.S. archbishop and who, with bachelor and master’s degrees in metallurgical engineering, has demonstrated significant technological savvy. In addition to Twitter and Facebook, Bishop Sample writes columns and shoots video on his iPad and chats with family on Skype. When he was appointed archbishop of Portland, Ore., Bishop Sample tweeted the news before it was even announced to his staff.
Twitter also allows bishops to forge a personal bond with local Catholics in their diocese. Other than serving as a vital communications outlet for big initiatives, Landry said Twitter allowed Cardinal O’Malley to keep Boston Catholics in the loop during travels. In fact, his first personal tweets were during his trip to World Youth Day in 2011.
Such digital tools also help bishops to amplify their presence in the local Church, particularly in far-flung dioceses like Marquette, where Bishop Sample is a spiritual shepherd for 74 parishes scattered over 16,281 square miles of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
“He used Twitter and Facebook to take people along with him as he traveled over 1,100 miles by car in one weekend from north to south and west to east across the Diocese of Marquette to open the Year of Faith in October by celebrating Mass with the people there,” said diocesan spokeswoman Loreene Zeno Koskey. “We called it ‘Crossing the U.P.,' since he figuratively made the Sign of the Cross over the diocese, which encompasses the entire Upper Peninsula of Michigan.”
Tweets From Rome
But some things don’t change. The deliberations of the conclave itself are secret, with black or white puffs of smoke the traditional means of communicating the outcome to the rest of the world. So it’s safe to assume the pair of American cardinal-tweeters will maintain virtual silence until a new pope is elected, and the Vatican’s own @Pontifex Twitter account has been dormant since Benedict XVI resigned last month.
“I assume that once they get into the conclave, it will be radio silence,” Landry said.
For Poust, the Church’s use of Twitter is yet another testament to its balance between ancient traditions and new technologies. “What other Church,” she asked, “sends up both white smoke and a 140-character tweet to announce a new shepherd?”
Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.