Bishop Paul Tighe, a son of Ireland, is a lover of language, culture and self-deprecating humor, and on Dec. 12, 2012, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the then-secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications accomplished something no Vaticanista ever thought possible.
He got Pope Benedict XVI, then 85 years old, to tweet.
Using the Twitter handle @Pontifex, which in Latin means “bridge builder,” Pope Benedict pushed the button of an iPad, launching his shortest encyclical ever, exactly140 characters: “Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.”
There has been a lot of water under the Pontifex’s bridge since the Vatican made a focused effort to engage the culture on the culture’s terms. Bishop Tighe is now the adjunct secretary of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, and he was in New Orleans last week to speak to Notre Dame seminarians about the church and the digital culture. He described Pope Benedict’s landmark tweet as “an extraordinary moment.”
Visual cues of Pope Francis
Through the 20-20 hindsight of five years, what perhaps is even more amazing is that the Vatican’s aggressive leap into digital communications has been given rocket propulsion by a new pope, now 80, who seems to have been conceived for this moment of digital evangelization.
“Pope Francis speaks like a pastor,” Bishop Tighe said. “He communicates very simply. He uses words, but he communicates much more with the simplicity of gestures that transcend various languages. So, there is the smile when he embraces a handicapped child, the quickness to recognize the person who is sick, his not getting annoyed with kids who want selfies. These are not planned. They are spontaneous expressions of connecting with people. People see him as authentic. Francis uses the grammar of simplicity.”
Everyone has a theory about the pope’s ease in trumpeting God’s mercy to the world, to believers and non-believers alike, and Bishop Tighe thinks it might have something to do with his not really wanting the awesome responsibility, so much so that when he actually received the white hat, it was a sign of God’s will.
Of course, the culture doesn’t talk much about God’s will. One of the defining characteristics of “post-modernism,” Bishop Tighe said, is that almost every moral issue is relative. In Facebook terms, people have unfriended absolute truth.
Truth? What is truth?
“Digital media has absorbed, particularly, post-modernism,” Bishop Tighe said. “The tenets of post-modernism are that there’s no real truth; experience is more important than analytics or anything else; and if it works for you, it works. It is a rough sense that there is no one narrative or no one story that makes sense of the world, and everything is ultimately quite relative.”
What Bishop Tighe found fascinating when Pope Benedict launched his Twitter account was the overwhelming response from people around the world – for good or for ill. Bishop Tighe had a case of buyer’s remorse when he committed himself to reading every comment that came in over the @Pontifex transom, and there were thousands.
“There was a deliberate campaign to get the pope out of Twitter by sending in the most extraordinary questions, with anatomical references of every nature and every language and every expletive you could ever imagine,” Bishop Tighe said. “Part of this was to force the Vatican to get out, to frighten us away.”
But by navigating through the scatological, four-letter forest, Bishop Tighe said he began to look beyond the actual comments and “see why people were angry with the church.”
Jabs revealed people’s hurts
The criticism from the U.S. and Ireland was tied to the sexual abuse of minors by priests. In Europe, people wrote in most often about the church’s wealth and political power. The Vatican made the decision to stand its ground, within the culture, and not retreat.
Bishop Tighe found something else interesting. A large number of papal Twitter followers were the Filipino and Indian guest workers in the Middle East who are denied real religious freedom.
“These are the people who are not allowed access easily to any church involvement,” Bishop Tighe said, “and they were signing up on Twitter to follow the pope. So they had a sense of connection. There was a sense of something that was affirming their identity.”
Last month, Bishop Tighe traveled to Austin, Texas, for the digital networking megaconference called “South By Southwest.” He joked that among the thousands of digital natives, he probably was the only priest and “the only person with gray hair.”
One of the themes he emphasized among the 20-somethings, who are climbing the corporate ladder while maintaining 24/7 connectivity, is that the metrics of the marketplace – higher sales, better market share, relentless innovation – are wonderful signs of energy but not the whole story.
“That energy is important, but it means a lot of people are under stress,” Bishop Tighe said in Austin. “They’re having to perform. They’re having to deliver. They’re having to earn attention. They’re pitching themselves as well as their products.”
And, as a person of the Good News, Bishop Tighe stressed countercultural Gospel metrics.
“Look, God loves everybody, irrespective of whether he or she is successful or not successful,” he said. “It’s not something that we earn. The ‘disruption,’ as we would see it, is essentially coming from the freedom of God’s love, the fact that this is a gift to all of us and makes us think differently about how we live with one another. God loves us maybe even more radically when we mess up.”
‘Us vs. Them’ doesn’t work
Bishop Tighe spoke to the seminarians about two parables, the ones that make faithful Massgoers so uncomfortable: the righteous brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son and the indignant workers, hired at dawn, who grow upset that the landowner gives the late-arriving workers the same daily pay.
“Most of us are the elder son – we’ve done fairly good, we haven’t messed up and suddenly we’re supposed to be tolerant of this other waster?” Bishop Tighe said. “You know, that’s challenging. Most of us are the people who got up in the morning and have worked all day – and the people who arrived at the last minute get paid the same way? I think that is challenging us to realize that, in fact, none of us merits God’s love. There’s no way that we are worth more. No, our worth comes from God’s gift.
“Pope Francis’ idea of the hospital on the battlefield means that maybe we are only patching people up and getting them to the next stage, but that, for me, is my image of church. If we say God loves everybody, and he loves us unconditionally, then whatever the church is, it’s not the club of those who have earned God’s love. It can’t be. God’s love is a free and complete gift.”
Speaking the truth in love
Bishop Tighe said when the church speaks within the digital environment, the key is to keep at the forefront Jesus’ idea of “turning the other cheek.” He definitely recommends church ministers not tweeting when they are tired or perturbed.
“When Jesus said, ‘Turn the other cheek,’ I don’t think he could have imagined what that might have meant in a digital environment, where the insults can come quickly and fast,” Bishop Tighe said. “It’s very easy to let that condition my way of responding to it. How do we keep a presence, a joyfulness, a sense of humor, a lightness of touch even when we are debating serious things? We come back to our authenticity.
“The more likely we are able to do that is the more we have actually absorbed the words of the Gospel. We savor the Word, we make it our own, so that our words will reflect the words of the Gospel. Priests and pastoral leaders are often at a loss for words – ‘What can I say?’ “The great truth is that God’s message continues to reach people. The most important thing we can do is not to get in the way, not make it more difficult for people to believe. That’s a good starting point.”
When all else fails, he says, laugh. Bishop Tighe pointed out one well-choreographed YouTube video – a “great presentation of faith” – that attracted 14,000 views, which is “extraordinarily high for our world.”
“Then somebody else puts up two cats climbing a tree, and it’s got a hundred million views,” he said. “That’s when I think, ‘The mustard seed!’ We do as well as we can, and leave it to God when he gets there.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.