Benedict 'Gets' Facebook

A Register editorial explores how the communications revolution has made our style of evangelization like that of the first Christians.

“We are the nation of Google and Facebook,” mused President Barack Obama during his State of the Union address on Jan. 25.

Is it good for us? People reflect on it more and more nowadays. Is virtual contact taking the place of human contact? Is “friendship” being redefined by the social networks? Have we invented a new way to “turn on, tune in and drop out”?

Two years ago, Pope Benedict asked those same questions in his annual message for the World Day of Communications. It was a groundbreaking text for the Vatican: The WDC message had always been a formality, a stylized — and arguably ineffectual — exhortation to media professionals on media ethics.

This, on the other hand, was addressed to the entire “digital generation.” That was new. But the text was very abstract and European in mindset, inviting readers to promote “a culture of respect, dialogue and friendship.”

Here in the newsroom, we were amazed by this year’s message, released the day before President Obama’s speech. It goes back over the same ground, but the Pope has subtly redefined the questions he asks and the answers he gives. This message is definitely written for Americans.

All during the communications revolution, the Church has had the same basic template for her response to each emerging form of media: The medium itself is neither good nor evil, but greater reach means greater capacity to transmit good or evil content. The Church never taught us to throw away our TVs; instead, she has tried by all means to get her message onto them.

So the Pope isn’t afraid of the fact that “the new technologies are not only changing the way we communicate, but communication itself.”

That has one crucial consequence: The way of proclaiming the Gospel on Facebook is very different from the ways that St. John Bosco (patron of editors and publishers) and St. Maximilian Kolbe communicated in their groundbreaking print publications, or that Father Patrick Peyton, Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Mother Angelica communicated on radio and television.

The Gospel on Facebook isn’t just about inserting content onto a platform. It’s about witness: “to witness consistently, in one’s digital profile.” “A message cannot be proclaimed without a consistent witness on the part of the one who proclaims it.”

It’s not a matter of merely “being there” on the social networks. We have to “be Christians” … there. More than the medium being the message, it’s a case of us being the medium for the Message: Jesus Christ.

In other words, the Pope “gets” Facebook. The Church’s typical model of top-down communication is simply out of place there, and yet Web 2.0 is an opportunity more than a threat. It’s not that a hierarchical structure is being threatened, but that, in a world of relationships, the potential for evangelization is actually far greater.

Top-down communication — the message communicated by the printed word or the person in the studio chair — doesn’t allow for “witness” in the same way that Facebook does. Strangely, the communications revolution has somehow left us at a point in which our style of evangelization becomes that of the first Christians, spreading the Gospel by word of mouth and converting others thanks to the example of our conviction.

His invitation is simple and direct: “I would like, then, to invite Christians, confidently and with an informed and responsible creativity, to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible.”

Why? Because you have a mission online.

“Believers who bear witness to their most profound convictions greatly help prevent the Web from becoming an instrument which depersonalizes people, attempts to manipulate them emotionally or allows those who are powerful to monopolize the opinions of others. On the contrary, believers encourage everyone to keep alive the eternal human questions which testify to our desire for transcendence and our longing for authentic forms of life.”

The Pope wants you on Facebook, because Facebook needs you.

When will we be the Church “of Google and Facebook”? That’s up to us.