NEW YORK, March 17, 2013 — This has been quite a week for Catholics. No, it’s been quite a year, but the Catholic community’s leadership has been restored with the election of Pope Francis (formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio).
Never have I sensed such a palpable interest by the non-Catholic world in my religion and its leader. The much-publicized papal election and its subsequent social media presence provoked world interest like that generated by the last three U.S. presidential elections. From the huge amount of fascinated coverage coming at me via my TV, computer and smart phone, I concluded something startling: People really cared about who would be elected.
Of course, the institution of the papacy is ancient and has been hugely important throughout the span of western civilization. It will continue to be influential, but the level of collective interest from Catholics and non-Catholics alike buzzing around throughout the conclave process is still astonishing. Aside from the occasional concern evoked by a scandal, for the most part the public just doesn’t seem that interested under normal circumstances.
There was no doubt an air of shock (but, thank God, not scandal) caused by the stunning resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, but what followed around the conclave and subsequent election of Pope Francis can only be described as spectacle. Aside from almost constant coverage from major television news stations, Twitter and Facebook were aflutter with people commenting on all things papal, even the black smoke billowing from the Sistine Chapel chimney. Numerous jokes and memes were created and shared, centering mostly around humorous observations of Pope Benedict and the conclave election process; even Grumpy Cat threw his name into the hat for consideration.
When you look at current communication trends within our society, it’s no wonder that so much interest built around this latest election. When Benedict was elected in 2005, Facebook wasn’t even open to the general public. The age of hypermedia exploded in the last few years; Cardinal Bergoglio’s Wikipedia page contained a reference to his election to the papacy within minutes of the event, and now Pope Francis already has a Wikipedia page with 132 references, and he hasn’t even been Pope for a week.
Such are the times we live in. It feels a lot like a music concert, where lighters in every thumb have been replaced with cellphone cameras in every hand - and those cameras share those special moments with the user’s thousand closest (Facebook) friends all over the planet within seconds.
Maybe the reason everyone was so interested in the latest papal election was simply because everyone could keep everyone else up to date on the process as it unfolded; new technologies mean that we can share our interest instantaneously with the rest of the world.
Pope Francis has just taken office. As with most big stories, mass interest will likely wane until the next scandal or shock, but there is a real sense that this is really a new beginning for Catholics, and the technologies that fueled mass interest will have an impact on the religious world at large.
Maybe these new technologies and social media venues represent not just a way for people to share with each other, but a way to share with the church. Churches ignore social media at their peril. Maybe the Vatican will take a look at what so many users have posted on their Facebook walls, what they write in blogs and online papers, and will have an opportunity to get a real sense of what today’s Catholics crave and need from their religious leaders. And if an acknowledgment of the public’s concerns is a by-product of the sometimes overwhelming social media saga, I’m all for it.
Hey, did you see these new celebrity look-a-like Pope Francis memes? Pretty cute. I think I’ll go post them to my wall.
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