He’s hip, he’s cool, he’s the Pope: How Pope Francis’ digital savvy is filling pews (and collection trays)
Earlier this week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, went on CBS to talk about the effect Pope Francis has had on the Catholic Church’s popularity. “The crowds at Sunday mass are up, confession lines are longer, inquiries about the Catholic faith are more abundant, and even the collections have gone up.” Pope Francis’ tenure has been good for the soul-saving business.
To explain what’s driving the so-called “Francis effect,” social media gurus may point to the Pope’s savvy use of Twitter. Last summer, the Vatican gamified the afterlife by offering “indulgences” (which equate to time-off purgatory) to those who follow the Pope and other official accounts on Twitter. Francis even agreed to the first-ever “Papal selfie.”
Francis’s popularity in the pews is mirrored by his popularity online. A recent study shows that Pope Francis was the year’s most-talked-about person on the Internet, beating out Edward Snowden, Kate Middleton, and Miley Cyrus. And if Sarah Palin is going rogue on you, then you’re definitely doing God’s work.
Are the social media gurus right? Is the Pope popular because he’s good at Twitter? In a way, but it’s (surprise!) a lot more complicated than that. These social media gimmicks are less the cause of his popularity and more a symptom of the Pope’s “man-of-the-people” attitude. The pontiff is not on Twitter, because it makes him “cool or “with it.” He’s on Twitter, because it’s an ideal platform for proselytizing. The church would be crazy not to use it.
Let’s be clear: We’re talking about an organization that’s been doing “social messaging” of one kind or another for the past 19 centuries, since a guy walked around a lake asking people to “follow” him.
What’s interesting about the sudden spike in church-goers and collection-givers is that, for all the social bells and tweets, the Church’s core message and dogma haven’t changed. Homosexuality is still a sin. So is abortion. Gay adoption? Forget about it. Women priests? Prayer, pleeease. Reports vary on this one, but the new pope doesn’t appear to be a fan of contraception either. It’s not as if Pope Francis joined Twitter then immediately stopped going to church and believing in God:
How did the Church pull off such an image makeover while adhering to principles that have barely changed since the Council of Trent in 1545? That’s where entrepreneurs can really learn from the Vatican.
The church has realized that social media is more about how you package your message, and less about the substance behind it. Pope Francis was reportedly the first priest to ever include women in the Washing of the Feet ceremony on Holy Thursday. He’s also avoided some of the controversies Pope Benedict encountered regarding relations with other religions like Judaism and Islam. And most importantly, despite the fact that dogma hasn’t changed much, Francis’ rhetoric has consistently pushed for inclusivity and positivity. He told an interviewer that the Church was “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception. And while Francis’ views are in line with the church’s teachings, he wants Catholicism to be a “home-for-all.” In other words, hate the sin, not the sinner. Hey, kind of like the guy Christianity is named after.
Sure, Twitter plays into that inclusivity. It’s an inherently democratic network where anyone can talk to the Pope, and anyone’s voice can be amplified across the network. But Twitter alone didn’t make Francis “the social media Pope.” After all, his predecessor Benedict was on Twitter first. It’s his positivity, his ability to make outsiders feel welcome and unthreatened, and (if you take a more cynical view) his tendency to get people talking about all the good things the church does while glossing over the bad.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pandodaily]