It only took three months but social media drove Pope Benedict XVI into retirement. The digital tsunami of the Twitterari can be overwhelming to even the more seasoned media vets so one must imagine an eighty five year old ultra-conservative would be completely lost a sea in that deluge.
He, nor his handlers, had any real idea of what he was getting himself into behind the gilded Vatican gates and the mere thirty-five or so tweets later were probably more than enough to elicit the most aggressive of troll responses. Leaving whatever critique or criticism I may personally have toward him, the Vatican or the general leadership of the world-wide Roman Catholic Church it is not surprising at all that when confronted with the biting nature of semi-anonymous social media every last possible skeleton was resurrected for the Papacy as if the plagues themselves had returned.
Twitter took the frock off of the flock and gave the lambs and the lions alike a direct line back to the Papacy that never, ever existed before. If you wanted to voice an opinion about how the religion was governed you were lucky to speak to your parish priest and anything said rarely, if ever, left the confines of your confessional conversation. The novelty of voicing concerns, posing questions and making requests shot from the 14th century where the Chruch in many ways seeks to remain to well into the 21st century where the rest of the modern world lives and the whiplash probably frightened many more than just the Pope himself.
“I have issues with anyone who treats God like a burden instead of a blessing, like some Catholics. You people don’t celebrate your faith, you mourn it” – Kevin Smith
After even a minimalist tweet just about every three days to his followers, millions of reactions ranging from the quasi-supportive to the downright despicable occurred and of course comes off as something out of a high school locker room shitshow. The @Pontifex handle, to no one’s surprise, went silent for the announcement, but tweets to the Pope or referencing the Vatican and the RCC in general were anything but polite and when confronted with the venom of not just their fellow human beings but most notably their own followers it probably became painfully apparent a change was in order for the Vatican.
The elders can spin his “retirement” any way they’d like but that won’t stop the continued speculation that responses to the Pope and the RCC in general over social media, which are a puffed up version of general conversations, weren’t a red flag to the deteriorating stature of the once proud institution. There was a theory when Benedict was enstated as Pope he was a stop-gap to the Church’s future due to the untimely death of JPII. Technology has a funny way of speeding up the process of change and perhaps in the three short months that the RCC embraced technology they realized there was no other choice but to change. What began as the Christmas miracle of Papal modernity birthing a voice for the flock is now once again following Church tradition and will find the Lenten season a time of vast reflection and Easter the opportunity for immense transformation.
It should be interesting to see if through the process of electing a new leader the Vatican uses technology to foster healthy discussion and reduce its opacity or it it will leave the underbelly of disenfranchisement, disappointment and despair many seem to feel about their own Christian, or morseo human, experience as shepherded by the RCC to be exposed to the sarcastic whim of punchy one liners and memes from Catholic critics the world over.
Of the many challenges the Roman Catholic Church faces communication will be at the forefront of its next leadership decision. No longer can introverted intellects preside from their tower speaking only to the piazza below, particularly now having opened itself up finally to digital communication. The object will not be to create the tone of a twelve year old fashionista but it needs a tenor more in tune with those it seeks to address and doing it honestly, openly and regularly to foster a feeling of familiarity with an organization that seems so foreign to most who follow it’s dogma. It generally takes time and experience in planning and a careful execution to produce such a brand voice of this manner – all things the Vatican lacks at this point.
Embracing the digital millennium does not mean the Chruch has to become a bastion of progressive or suddenly lean more liberal like other Christians have which seems to be one of the more inherent fears of the stogy stalwarts that command the cloth. Embracing the digital medium will mean more people will have the opportunity to understand the vast array of cultural “quirks” the Church seeks to impart in a more educated way. Right now many, if not most, are in the dark about what the RCC seeks from its followers, as followers and fellow humans alike and much of that is because of the sporadic and oft-tone deaf delivery of the message. By speaking to the masses the way the masses speak to one another it may even help to humanize an organization that seems less than human in nature many days.
The memes and quips and criticisms aren’t going to subside by allowing the Pope’s Twitter and other social media to remain dormant. Rather, by not embracing the opportunity to produce further insight into the situation the Papalcy is merely inviting more people to poke at it. It appears the silence really is deafening when you consider the overwhelming response to the abdication announcement. Hopefully, for the sake of Catholics and all humans alike, the Vatican rekindles the posts and responds to the underlying reason for all the viciousness virtually slung at it by professing the word and works of it’s founding Communicator rather that dehumanizing itself in more contrived contravercy.
The lessons are worth all learning even those beyond the faith and as anyone who’s ever worked in mar-comm or corp-comm will tell you sticking your head in the sand only suffocates you.