KELLNER: With Pope Francis, a chance for the first real e-papacy

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

With the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, there seems to have been no shortage of people — Catholic and non-Catholic — offering the new Pope Francis advice. Much, if not most, of that advice has been theological, suggesting a wide range of changes in Church doctrine and rules.

Not being Catholic, I won’t go there, but I would like to offer a thought which some Catholics, I believe, would share: The new pope should be as digital as possible.

In both a pre-conclave homily at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and in a subsequent interview with The Washington Times, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington stressed that the next pope “has to be able to get the message out using these modern means of communication,” twice referencing social media platforms such as Twitter.

Cardinal Wuerl noted that now-emeritus Pope Benedict XVI “was already opening the doors” to social media engagement, adding, “I think of the number of cardinals, [including] European cardinals, who are engaged in [the] Web, have blogs and websites and Twitter.”

In this, the Roman Catholic Church is following a path blazed by other religious leaders. Speaking at the Hawaii campus of Brigham Young University in December 2007, M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, called on faithful Mormons to share the faith’s message via the Internet.

“I ask that you join the conversation by participating on the Internet to share the Gospel and to explain in simple and clear terms the message of the Restoration,” Mr. Ballard said, adding, “you can start a blog in minutes and begin sharing what you know to be true.”

Since then, Mormon testimonies have exploded over the Internet, with the LDS Church joining in by posting hundreds of videos on its own YouTube channel. Public perceptions of the church may well change because of the digital outreach.

Benedict, as Cardinal Wuerl noted, took a giant step in setting up his own Twitter account, and the Vatican has come a long, long way from its mid-1990s establishment of a website. Today, a vast amount of news and information from the Holy See is available online.

On Thursday, for example, Pope Francis met with a range of non-Catholic religious officials, including the Most Rev. Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, and Protestant church leaders, including Linda Bond, international leader of the Salvation Army.

Within a few hours, a Vatican-supplied photo of the pope with Ms. Bond was posted on Facebook by more than one Salvation Army church member. I suspect similar photos of the pontiff with this or that leader are also appearing through followers of the various movements represented at the meeting.

This buys great good will for the Vatican, but it also demonstrates the speed and power of the Internet. The Vatican — and Catholic-sponsored communications ministries — are trying to harness that power.

Aleteia.org is a website devoted to reporting news from a Catholic perspective, and editor Harold Fickett, a collaborator with the late Chuck Colson in some of Colson’s books, including “The Faith,” a monumental apologetic, says the site’s team will “listen” to what’s trending online for reporting cues.

“We are pinning our editorial policy to responding quickly and with reliable answers to trending topics across social media,” Mr. Fickett said in an interview. “We will be ‘listening,’ so to speak, or mining the data from social media so that we will be reporting on what people are talking about at the moment.”

He added, “What we are aiming at is a cross between the Huffington Post and [social media news website] Mashable. We want to be about the most interesting stories of the day from a Catholic perspective, and also provide Internet tools to our audience.”

So far, the Aleteia model is showing promise — the site is logging 400,000 unique visitors a month. That’s not the huge numbers of some secular websites, to be sure, but it’s a good start, and a useful illustration of how the Internet can be used for more than displaying cute photos of cats or the latest celebrity gossip.

• Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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