Pope tweets Lent. Really?
22 Feb 2012

by tmartin on February 23, 2012

THE SPRING CYCLE BEGINS today as the Christian calendar marks Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40 days of Lent which lead up to Easter.

I’m kind of a traditionalist and so my browser came to a screeching halt at this HuffPost headline:

Pope Tweets Lent

 Huh? The 84-year-old pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, hardly has a reputation as a hip and modern kind of guy.  He’s more known as an enforcer who stood solidly behind old line conservative views, offended a lot of people with these views, and may well feel more comfortable in 1612 than 2012.

For that matter, the Vatican bureaucracy itself hasn’t changed much since it was created in the 1500s to handle big global changes including the Protestant Reformation and the race to the New World.  Progress and Vatican are rarely used in the same sentence.

But in with the new! The Pope Tweets Lent.

According to Vatican Radio, the idea originated with – and I couldn’t possibly make this up — the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. I guess that’s sort of the pope’s social media consulting group.

The news release quotes a Msgr. Paul Tighe, secretary of the group, as saying – and again I could not possibly make this up – “Many of the key Gospel ideas are readily rendered in just 140 characters.”

Now, to be fair, in the past year or so the Vatican created a YouTube Channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/Vatican), a Facebook page named JohnPaul II (http://www.facebook.com/vatican.johnpaul2), officially blessed a few iPhone and iPad apps (perhaps Android swings Protestant?), and brought a web-based news portal online (www.news.va) last June.

In case you doubting Thomases need to see to believe this, the (London) Telegraph has actual video of some pontifical iPad action. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/the-pope/8605484/Pope-sends-first-Tweet-at-Vatican-iPad-app-launch.html) I gotta’ confess that the pope looks about as engaged and excited as you’d expect your own elderly father/grandpa/great grandpa to be when faced with what he’s clearly viewing as this new-fangled tablet-screen-thing.

But that’s not slowing him down, no siree bob. Just like in any corporation, the CEO’s got a team that gets out the tweets!

I can’t help picturing, in some turret in Rome, a couple of intern-priests high-fiving each other after getting designated as official papal posters. Although I suspect it rather more likely that a marketing functionary has been running the messages through a development cycle for the last quarter, getting them approved for the start of the Lenten campaign.

I also keep thinking about how to combine this tweeting news with the other mobile apps. For example, the papal-approved “Confessions: A Roman Catholic App” might be just the thing to combine with Lenten tweeting.

It provides – and I quote because once again I couldn’t have made this up on my own! – “Custom examination of Conscience based upon age, gender, and vocation (single, married, priest, or religious)”

It also features: “Ability to add sins not listed in standard examination of conscience,” as well as the always-needed “Confession walkthrough including time of last confession in days, weeks, months, and years” and of course the option to “choose from 7 different acts of contrition.”

Imagine! Today’s 8-year-olds no longer need struggle to remember the last time they went to confession or invent suitable sins to confess.

(I used to wonder if making up a story about being mean to my sister so I had something to say as the priest breathed impatiently on the other side of the dark box would count as something I could confess in the next confession -alas, if only I had my iPad and Confession App in hand back then!)

We shouldn’t laugh at the Pope, though.  Everyone gets credit for trying something new. Or at least agreeing to let one’s staff trying something new.

Besides, there’s something even more unexpected than papal tweets — and that’s the serious coverage and community dialog about Lent in places like The Huffington Post. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/lent/)

I don’t know about you, but I tend to think of the HuffPost and its kin as source for rumor about PAC money or gossip about the skinniest celebs. I do not expect a well-crafted, extensive, serious, and far-ranging editorial package about Lent ranging from meditations, to history, to religious analysis, to fried fish recipes.

It’s kinda’ weird yet at the same time oddly normal. Why shouldn’t a cultural/religious season get commented upon and reported with as much intensity as, say, the celeb cycle du jour? Why shouldn’t this commentary happen in digital media which is, afterall, merely a reflection of all things human?  Why is it that religion and technology should seem so mutually exclusive?

Even some of the amusement from the non sequitur “pope tweets” comes from this sense of religion and technology as inherently non-intersecting circles.

Among tech circles, you’re allowed to tell funny childhood stories about religious traditions gone weird. You can have a spiritual interest as long as it involves the far far east, an obscure ancient culture or, preferably, both.

At the same time, in religious circles, technology becomes cast as the evil force, the thing that breaks the bonds, a temptation, the cause of sin.

Yet these two non-intersecting circles share a common intersecting line in the form of the people who create and inhabit both, people whose lives inevitably pass through, shape, and become shaped by each sphere.

Technology and region have more in common that either might like to admit. Both are imperfect products of mankind’s attempt to understand and interpret the world around us. Both bring gifts – and both have the potential to be abused and used for harm. The simplistic interpretation of either can be a scary thing to behold.

At their core, they are both about the most misunderstood thing of all: us. Humanity.

So … so … maybe they shouldn’t be quite so disconnected. As we create tools and techniques that push the envelope of being, why do we think that using tools and techniques from another sphere as a lens for looking at our work should be weak or ordinary or anti-intellectual?

Which bring us back to Lent. Or if you, as a technologist, prefer, the time just before spring has sprung, the time when the ancients acted out rituals to ask whatever mysterious forces drove the world to send life back to the cold and frozen land.

As druids chanted or drummed or danced or mediated their message to the universe they created a tradition and a tool set for introspection into our very being. It wasn’t about dogma; it was about understanding.

We call them different things now, but that same tradition and tool set lives on with us. So maybe in this season I should give up a gut reaction of cynicism along with the instinct to roll my eyes at tweeting popes. And maybe, just maybe, give a drumming druid a chance.

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