As I walk into his office, Paul Tighe is on the phone with Apple regarding The Pope App. Yes, this is the pope’s social media office.
And Monsignor Tighe’s operation would be on par with any major news organization. In the office next to his, a team tweets, adds content to the newsportal news.va, uploads photos on Flickr, fine-tunes The Pope App (for Android and Apple devices) and monitors livestream video. “We have the Habemum Papam tweet ready to be sent out,” Miguel Chavarra, a young Spaniard tells me. Sure enough, the very same evening, as soon as a cardinal has announced the magic words that make Jorge Mario Bergogio Pope Francis, the tweet goes out.
“Today’s news model is short news and lots of images, and that’s good for the church,” explains Tighe, an Irish priest who’s been in charge of the pope’s social media (formally known as Pontificium Consilium de Communicationibus Socialibus, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications) for the past five years. “The church has always been very visual, and communications is like theater. Just think of all the people waiting to see the black and white smoke.” Indeed, as soon as the white smoke emerged, millions of people had tweeted and retweeted the news.
In fact, to the surprise of many, the Vatican — known as a socially conservative institution — embraced social media early on. “We’re making sure that all the content that comes out of the Vatican is presented in a multimedia format, and everything we put out can be shared on Twitter, Facebook and so on”, says Tighe. “The people who listen to us can bring the information to a wider audience. We’ve made mistakes while adopting social media, but we’ve learned.
"People often say, ‘How can you talk the gospel in 140 characters?’ But so much of the Bible’s teachings are in 140 characters: Think of things like ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’” Adds Thaddeus Jones, the office’s American-born coordinator: “And 140 characters can give you words of support and consolation.”
One of the earliest adopters was Pope Benedict XVI himself. After Twitter had been explained to him, he immediately decided to tweet. “He really embraced it,” recalls Tighe. “He said that new media are a blessing, and they’re about dialogue. He said, ‘If Twitter is something that allows us to communicate the good news, especially to young people, then I’m very happy to do it.’”
As soon as Tighe’s staff created the @Pontifex account, it got millions of followers. “Benedict always approved each tweet in Italian,” reveals Tighe. “Then we translated it into the other languages on his Twitter account, but sometimes it could be a bit tricky. 140 characters in Italian can be a bit longer in German!” Of PCCS’s staff of 25-30, most work on the news.va portal, while a handful work full time on social media.
Benedict’s Twitter use has led to a Twitter explosion among Catholic clergy: seminarians, priests and bishops now tweet. “When Benedict started tweeting, he was essentially saying that this is important to the church,” observes Tighe. “As a result, many bishops who had previously been reluctant started tweeting too.” These days even cardinals tweet. In fact, to make sure that tweeting cardinals didn’t reveal any secrets during the conclave, the Vatican had to install jamming signals. The @Pontifex account has been transferred to Pope Francis.
Of course, users don’t just share the news. Some use social media to criticize the pope, the Vatican and the church as well. But Tighe isn’t deterred: “These thoughts are there anyway. Jesus went into the marketplace and preached the gospel. Digital media is the new marketplace. We can’t be afraid to go there.”
Oh, and The Pope App? It already features Pope Francis’ activities (with images) and calendar and webcams showing his activities.
Where to find the Pope
Facebook: www.facebook.com/news.va, in different languages
iPhone, Android: The Pope App (free)