The Pope has urged young Catholics to embrace social media and use tools like Facebook to evangelise.
Only two years after Pope Benedict XVI had to make a public apology for not having checked the internet before a major controversy, the Holy Father was urging Christians to sign up to social networks on the internet.
He said: “I would like then to invite Christians, confidently and with an informed and responsible creativity, to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible. This is not simply to satisfy the desire to be present, but because this network is an integral part of human life.
“The web is contributing to the development of new and more complex intellectual and spiritual horizons, new forms of shared awareness. In this field too we are called to proclaim our faith that Christ is God, the Saviour of humanity and of history, the one in whom all things find their fulfilment.”
The Pope said that proclaiming the Gospel “requires a communication which is at once respectful and sensitive, which stimulates the heart and moves the conscience; one which reflects the example of the risen Jesus when he joined the disciples on the way to Emmaus.”
Benedict XVI said that advances in modern communications resembled the advances made during the Industrial Revolution. New technologies, he said, not only changed the way that people communicate, but also were giving a “new way of learning and thinking” which presented an opportunity for “establishing relationships and building fellowships”.
In the digital world, the Pope said, the transmission of information is increasingly done within the context of personal exchanges, which relativised the “clear distinction between the producer and consumer of information” making communication not just an exchange of data but a “form of sharing”.
Young people who are ever more likely to use social networks in the “public digital forum” help “to establish new forms of interpersonal relations, influence self-awareness and therefore inevitably poses questions not only of how to act properly, but also about the authenticity of one’s own being”, he said.
He added: “Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world. In the search for sharing, for ‘friends”, there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself.
The Pope said: “This is a great opportunity, but it also requires greater attention to and awareness of possible risks. Who is my ‘neighbour’ in this new world? Does the danger exist that we may be less present to those whom we encounter in our everyday life? Is there is a risk of being more distracted because our attention is fragmented and absorbed in a world ‘other’ than the one in which we live? Do we have time to reflect critically on our choices and to foster human relationships, which are truly deep and lasting? It is important always to remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives.”
He described the exchange of information as people sharing themselves, which he said meant that “there exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world: this takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others”.
The Pope said: “To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preferences and judgments that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically.
“Furthermore, it is also true in the digital world that a message cannot be proclaimed without a consistent witness on the part of the one who proclaims it. In these new circumstances and with these new forms of expression, Christians are once again called to offer a response to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is within them.”
Some commentators have taken the Pope’s message as an implicit criticism of the Catholic blogosphere which is sometimes seen as the home of the “Catholic Taliban”.
In his message the Pope also highlighted the dangers of the internet.
He said: ”First of all, we must be aware that the truth which we long to share does not derive its worth from its ‘popularity’ or from the amount of attention it receives. We must make it known in its integrity, instead of seeking to make it acceptable or diluting it. It must become daily nourishment and not a fleeting attraction.
“The truth of the Gospel is not something to be consumed or used superficially; rather it is a gift that calls for a free response. Even when it is proclaimed in the virtual space of the web, the Gospel demands to be incarnated in the real world and linked to the real faces of our brothers and sisters, those with whom we share our daily lives. Direct human relations always remain fundamental for the transmission of the faith.”
Facebook, perhaps one of the best known social networks, has over 500 million users, which in population terms would make it the third largest country in the world.