Reaching Out to the YouTube Generation

A look at the Vatican’s new efforts to reach out via the Internet.

For most people outside of Italy, watching the Pope in action and hearing him speak is a rare opportunity.

Generally, only extraordinary news is featured, and even then, it often falls short of the full picture. Few people get to see the busy life of the Pope or the scope of what happens at the Vatican.

But thanks to Google and YouTube, much of what the Holy Father says will now be available at the click of a mouse.

Just about a month ago, the Vatican — with the help of Internet colossus Google — launched its own YouTube channel. The launch video — Vatican Communications HD — is a 1 1/2-minute trailer of key advances in the Church’s coming of age in the modern era of media communications, beginning with clips from the early days of Vatican Radio, founded in 1931. 

Along with the featured video, an initial batch of 12 videos captured highlights of recent events at the Vatican, including a baptismal service at the Sistine Chapel, a traditional blessing of the lambs whose wool will be used to make ceremonial garments, the Pope’s reflections on the media as a voice in the service of peace, and a video about the Internet as “a new way to speak of God.”

The YouTube channel appears in four languages — Spanish, English, Italian and German — and provides links to other Vatican-related sites, including Vatican Radio, Vatican Television, the Vatican itself, which allows access to all documents, departments and councils, and Vatican City State.

While the embedding and comments features remain disabled for now because of concerns about how to monitor the site, viewers are able to communicate with the Vatican via e-mail.

Following the YouTube launch and timed to coincide with the Jan. 24 feast of St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists, Pope Benedict released his message in advance of the 43rd World Communications Day, dedicated to the theme “New Technologies, New Relationships: Promoting a Culture of Respect, Dialogue and Friendship.” 

Continuing the example of his predecessor, John Paul II, the first pope in history to use e-mail, Pope Benedict, emphasized that “technologies are truly a gift to humanity.”

At the same time, he warned that new technologies have raised “negative and hitherto unimaginable questions and problems,” and often “exercise a negative influence on people’s consciences and choices, definitively conditioning their freedom and their very lives.”

Pope Benedict said new technologies have extraordinary potential for building new relationships and friendships “if they are used to promote human understanding and solidarity.”

Toward that end, he said, “Perhaps this is a valuable opportunity to reshape it, to make more visible, as my venerable predecessor Pope John Paul II said, the essential and indispensable elements of the truth about the human person.”

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, the director of both Vatican Radio and the Vatican Television Center, said the aim of the YouTube channel is to keep open lines of communication and dialogue, and “to make the Church’s material available to people of all countries and of all religious and ideological positions who are interested.”

“Many people around the world want to know what the Pope thinks, what the Catholic Church proposes for the great problems of today’s world,” he said.

After more than a year of preparation at both Vatican Radio and Vatican TV, he said the Church was ready “to make the leap into the global world.” 

By all counts, the Church’s leap forward has been successful. Father Lombardi said the new venture was off to a good start.

“We are confident this new way of engaging the world will be fruitful,” he said. At the end of the first week, analysts registered some 750,000 hits, with more than 15,000 new subscribers.

English is the most popular channel, followed by Italian, German and Spanish. Although the initial onslaught of traffic — more than 93,000 hits on the first day — subsided over the week, experts say this is to be expected. On the whole, there was an average increase of page views by 32%. Moreover, traffic for both Vatican Radio and Vatican Television increased by more than 30%. 

Vatican journalist and television producer Mary Shovlain said that along with evangelizing, another benefit of going global is that it will help clarify the Vatican’s positions.

“It will be harder for some groups to misquote the Pope when we can see for ourselves what he is doing and saying. I know that the Pope or the Vatican being misrepresented in the press often doesn’t depend on a lack of information, but is a result of prejudice,” she said. “If critics will enter into this ‘cyber-dialogue’ with the Catholic Church, I think things could change.”

Like other recent innovations, including the Vatican’s X3 social-networking site, text messaging from the Pope for World Youth Day, and the iBreviary approved last December, the new YouTube channel reflects the Church’s constant desire to communicate the Gospel message to the world. 

Author and theologian Christine Mugridge, who recently published a book titled John Paul II — Development of a Theology of Communication, said, “The Holy Father is well aware of the contemporary reality of a new sense of global community being formed through the Internet. This community needs to see, hear and experience the Gospel and to know of the Church’s desire to bring them into a personal encounter with the living Jesus Christ.”

Irene Lagan writes

from Rome.