“Extra omnes!”. Everybody else, out!. With that cry, the doors of the Sistine Chapel slam shut and the cardinals within begin the voting for a new Pope. The conclave, which began yesterday, will last until a new pope is chosen. White smoke will rise from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, and the cry of habemus papam, we have a pope, will ring out across St Peters Square.
The traditions may stay the same, but this papal election will be the first in an era in which use of social media has become widespread across much of the globe. Furthermore, those parts of the developing and middle income world, where many Catholics reside but where internet and social media penetration currently lags behind the developed world, will come online in the next half decade as smartphones become increasingly ubiquitous.
The Vatican has been slow to embrace social media; in 2012 50% of US said they were unaware that the Catholic Church had any significant online presence. This is not altogether surprising. The Catholic Church is a traditional, relatively secretive and very hierarchical organisation, run primarily by old men. Its easy to understand why the democratising, and somewhat anarchical, nature of social media, combined with the natural tendency of a generation to misunderstand new technology which arrives late in their lives, could lead to it being viewed by its hierarchy with trepidation and suspicion.
It has begun to take social media more seriously. Most famously, the last Pope began tweeting in 2012 and amassed over 3,000,000 followers, in 9 languages. Less noticed has been the Vaticans foray into YouTube, with mighty 1,735 videos posted since January 2009. A concerted effort has begun to reach out to Catholic bloggers, by the Pontifical Council of Social Communications. Some of the cardinals at the current conclave, including several papal contenders, such as Wildred Napier, and Timothy Dolan, are already on Twitter.
It is important that the Vatican builds on these initial forays. Social media is the primary way in which many people, young people especially, now consume news and form opinions. Firstly, the conversations Catholics have on social media, on important and emotive issues such as poverty, development, contraception and abuse, will happen with or without the Vatican. If they dont involve themselves in the conversation, they risk their voice not being heard.
Secondly, proper use of social media gives the Catholic Church power to reach directly to its flock in a way that it has never had before. Previously, a message from the top would filter slowly and haphazardly down through its various layers and to its geographically diverse constituencies. Now, with the right strategy and a little hard work, its message and evangelising can reach across the whole world. Sermons play a huge part of Catholic theory and practice. A sermon in a church may be heard by perhaps two or three hundred. The same sermon on a blog could be read by millions.
As Pope Benedict XVI himself said on World Communications Day, January 2012,
…believers are increasingly aware that, unless the Good News is made known also in the digital world, it may be absent in the experience of many people for whom this existential space is important. The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world, but is part of the daily experience of many people, especially the young [These] networks are increasingly becoming part of the very fabric of society, inasmuch as they bring people together on the basis of these fundamental needs. Social networks are thus nourished by aspirations rooted in the human heart.