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Pope Benedict calls for strong Christian presence in social media

Catholic World News - January 24, 2013

Pope Benedict XVI encourages an active and distinctively Christian involvement in the social media, in his message for the 47th World Communications Day.

The social media, the Pope writes, are “helping to create a new 'agora,’ an open public square in which people share ideas, information, and opinions, and in which new relationships and forms of community can come into being.” In his message he offers some cautions about the use of the social media, but also some suggestions on how Christians can use this new means of communication most effectively.

Pope Benedict, who has written frequently on the importance of a strong Christian presence on the internet, recognizes the immense influence of the new social media. “The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world,” he writes, “but is part of the daily experience of many people, especially the young.” In this new environment, he says, “people are engaged in building relationships and making friends, in looking for answers to their questions and being entertained, but also in finding intellectual stimulation and sharing knowledge and know-how.” Consequently the social media offer many different sorts of opportunities for evangelization, for building Christian communities, and for providing help to others.

Pope Benedict is candid in addressing on some of the problems of the social media. He notices that these media appear to be ruled by popularity rather than the intrinsic value of messages. “At times the gentle voice of reason can be overwhelmed by the din of excessive information,” he also observes. To counteract these tendencies, the Pope calls upon the faithful who are active in the social media to “cultivate forms of discourse and expression that appeal to the noblest aspirations of those engaged in the communication process.”

The new media call for new methods of communication, the Pope acknowledges. He urges Christians to be creative in finding new approaches. “Effective communication, as in the parables of Jesus, must involve the imagination,” he says. Offering one strong suggestion on how this might be done, the Pope reminds the faithful that the “Christian tradition has always been rich in signs and symbols.” Just as Catholic artists and musicians have expressed their faith through their creative work, the Pope says, Catholics can find ways to convey the faith through digital communications.

Along with the content of messages, the Pope also remarks on the importance of the style of participation in the social media. He suggests that users can bear witness through “a willingness to give oneself to others by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence.”

The Pope also observes that the social media have allowed for new ways to bring together communities of the faithful. “The networks facilitate the sharing of spiritual and liturgical resources, helping people to pray with a greater sense of closeness to those who share the same faith,” he writes.

The Pope’s message, entitled “Social Networks: Portals of Truth and Faith; New Spaces for Evangelization,” was released on January 24. (The papal message for the World Communications Day is traditionally issued on that date: the feast of St. Francis de Sales, the patron of journalists.) The Pope’s message was introduced to the media at a press conference chaired by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

The Pope’s general verdict on the social media is “a positive assessment, although not a naive one,” said Archbishop Celli. He called attention in particular to the Pope’s appeal that internet communications should be marked “with concern for privacy, with responsibility and dedication to the truth, and with authenticity.”

Msgr. Paul Tighe, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, added that the Pope has a keen appreciation for the influence of the internet, especially in the lives of young people. “It is a ‘continent’ where the Church must be present,” he said. In an interview with Vatican Radio, Msgr. Tighe said that the Pope’s message should be an encouragement to recognize the greater potential of the new media. “People often talk about ‘user-generated content,” he said, “but I think the Pope is guiding us to a ‘user-generated culture.’”

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