From smoke to tweets, Catholics anticipate first social media conclave
When the scarlet-robed cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church assemble next month to elect a new pope, they will process while chanting a ninth-century Latin hymn en route to their forced seclusion in the Sistine Chapel.
Popular Catholic Twitter handles
Global, national handles
Pope Benedict XVI: @Pontifex
Vatican News: @news_va_en
The Rev. Robert Barron, priest, author, founder of Word on Fire website: @FrRobertBarron
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York: @CardinalDolan
Catholic News Service: @CatholicNewsSvc
Catholic Relief Services, humanitarian agency: @CatholicRelief
Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate: @caracatholic
Planet Catholic, streaming from Catholic blogs: @planetcatholic
Charleston Catholics: @CHSCatholics
Diocese of Charleston's Young Adult Ministry: @CatholicYAMinSC
Catholic Miscellany, Diocese of Charleston newspaper: @the_miscellany
The Rev. Jeffrey Kirby, vocations director, Diocese of Charleston: @FatherKirby
Once secrecy oaths are taken, the Master of the Papal Liturgical Celebrations will holler, “Extra omnes!”
Roughly meaning: “Everybody else, out.”
No more outside contact — no cellphones, no email, no texting, no tweeting, no status updates, nothing.
In this first conclave of the social media age, nothing from within will inform the global eyes and ears of drama, frontrunners or results of ballots cast inside the 500-year-old chapel.
Oh, but beyond.
Local Catholics expect throngs of onlookers, smartphones poised, hashtags ready, to fire off news once black or white smoke wisps from the chapel chimney.
Over the eight years since his election, Pope Benedict XVI has led the Catholic Church, with its myriad ancient rite and rules, into the social media age.
His new Twitter handle has 2.5 million followers in eight languages. The Vatican launched a YouTube channel and an iPhone app (Android version to come).
“The truths communicated are unchanging and constant,” said Katherine Lyons, a Catholic medical physicist at the Medical University of South Carolina. “But they're being expressed through radically different means than they were even just a few years ago.”
Will the next pope embrace social media as well?
Many local Catholics predict he will, perhaps even more so.
In December, his 85-year-old hands a bit shaky over an iPad touch screen, Pope Benedict dispatched the first-ever papal tweet.
The Vicar of Christ, who still writes in longhand, chose the handle @Pontifex. (Use the hashtag #askpontifex to ask him questions.)
“The fact that he embraced Twitter was pretty profound,” said Mary DeTurris Poust, a Catholic journalist and blogger who spoke to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in November about social media use. “It signified that this is where we need to go.”
From sending barefoot missionaries to trek across Europe or through Pope John Paul II's long tenure as the Pilgrim Pontiff traveling the globe, the Catholic Church has long reached out.
“The church and the next pope will increase their use of these tools to get the message of love and repentance to a world that so desperately needs it,” said Dr. Jacob Whelan, a Charleston internist and recent Catholic convert.
During the last conclave in 2005, which elected Pope Benedict, a young Jeff Kirby watched the news on TV waiting to see the white smoke that indicates a new pope has been chosen.
“With all of this technology, we're watching a live feed of a chimney,” mused Kirby, who studied in Rome and now is a priest and vicar of vocations for the Catholic Diocese of Charleston.
When Kirby was named vicar in 2010, he was tasked with reaching out to folks, especially young people, who feel called down the ancient path to religious life.
No easy feat. Fewer people are signing up for vocations. And the Catholic Diocese of Charleston spans the entire state, a huge turf to cover.
Kirby needed some serious outreach help.
He leaped onto the social media train. The vocations office staff launched a Facebook account with videocasts, pictures and church documents. They opened Twitter and Instagram accounts.
It's all about reaching folks who aren't sitting in pews during Mass.
Kirby got help from Rhett Williams, now a Charleston diocese seminarian studying in Washington, D.C.
“We're reaching a whole new sector we wouldn't be able to reach,” Williams said. “It's the 21st century. Everything has turned to Facebook and Twitter. People wake up and check them to see what's going on.”
That is true for Valerie Soop, the Charleston diocese's associate director of young adult ministry. Her groups rely heavily on Facebook to connect.
“Social media has been a huge gift to the Catholic Church,” Soop said.
It connects the faithful. It allows the church to reach fallen away members and non-Catholics. And it brings the pope's messages face-to-face with the masses, at least electronically.
“You don't have to see the pope in person,” Soop said. “It's an amazingly powerful feeling of connectedness.”
Call it old meets new.
A recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate showed that 62 percent of Catholic adults have Facebook accounts. Two-thirds visit YouTube.
Yet when Pope Benedict was elected the 265th pontiff, Twitter didn't exist. Facebook was for college students. YouTube was in its infancy.
During his papacy, social media options have exploded: Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, Tumblr and God knows what's coming next.
They are becoming beloved tools for evangelism.
“We're really seeing a movement around the world,” Williams said.
A few weeks ago, Kirby posted a YouTube video of a woman redoing a famous pop song in support of ordaining women.
The post received 39 comments, some of them long-winded, several irritated.
“I was called a heretic three times,” Kirby said.
But he kept it on the Charleston Vocations' Facebook page because it prompted a conversation and, hopefully, a better understanding of the church's position on ordination.
“The doctrinal teachings are not going to change,” Kirby said. “But it doesn't mean we cannot discuss them or debate them. Most people today want to talk and want to understand. It makes Christ and the gospel accessible.”
Two years ago, seminarian Williams returned from a stint with the Peace Corps in El Salvador.
While there, he had to walk up a mountain for 45 minutes to reach Internet access. It made him question how much he needed to log on.
“It's all about responsible use,” Williams said. “If it's something you can't go a day or two without, you have to question it.”
Soop has had friends turn off their Facebook accounts because they've become too distracting.
And after the pope's announcement last week, Poust had to take a break from the Twitter and Facebook deluge.
“It's a challenge,” Soop said. “You have to be discerning enough to step aside and take time to be quiet and take a walk or read a book.”
Yet most new visitors to Soop's young adult groups come after seeing something on Facebook or Twitter.
“Social media is great to reach a person and make that first contact,” Soop said. “But people stay and come back for personal connections and the people they meet.”
Faith is about that connectedness: to God and to his people. Prayer requires focus.
Is that possible in today's inundation of opinions and status updates?
“While these inventions are truly marvelous and can speed information across the globe ... there is always the need for prayer, discernment, fidelity and respect for humanity,” said Sister Clare Stephen Kralovic, a nun at Pauline Books and Media in Charleston whose order focuses on communications.
Soop predicts the next pope will tweet more often. Perhaps he, like more bishops, will start a blog.
“I don't know that I envision the pope having a Facebook account,” Soop said. “But who knows?”
Or maybe the next pope will back away from social media.
After all, Pope Benedict didn't tweet his retirement.Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or subscribe to her at www.facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.