Does the Holy Spirit read social media?
The retired cardinal archbishop of Manila, Gaudencio Rosales, had a ready answer when asked, upon returning from the conclave in Rome, why the media failed to predict the identity of the new pope. “God does not read social media,” he said.
That is the quote as found in Lito Zulueta’s comprehensive March 17 report in the Inquirer. On Zulueta’s Twitter account, the quote, tweeted at least a day before the newspaper came out, specifically names the third person of the Holy Trinity: “because the holy spirit does not read social media” (no caps).
The Wall Street Journal’s Southeast Asia Real Time blog remembered Rosales’ quip in the same, specific, fashion. Cris Larano’s engaging post quoted Rosales as saying: “The joke in Rome is that Pope Francis was elected because the Holy Spirit didn’t read social media … or watch CNN.”
We understand what Rosales means. The voting in the conclave did not follow media chatter or worldly gossip; it was not directed outward; it was the fruit of much prayer and discernment. In other words, it was determined to a great extent, and as Catholics continue to believe, by the promptings of the Spirit.
When Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, Rosales’ successor in Manila, addressed questions at the same airport news conference about his own name being mentioned among the papabile, he resorted to the same language. “It is a product of speculation of different sectors, especially social media. I’m just very happy that they are not the electors. It was clear to me that the task of the cardinals is to elect a new pope and not to have yourself be elected pope.” (Quotes from the WSJ blog post.)
The Holy Spirit, in other words, does not do trends.
We understand. At the same time, we recognize that Cardinal Rosales had attempted to frame his answer in a joking manner. “The two jovial cardinals dueled for best quip,” Larano wrote. In that case, Rosales may have won; the succinct wisdom of his line (or of the joke in Rome) was not only immensely appealing; it was illuminating.
Or at least it seemed to be. It seemed to contrast the breathlessness of much of Twitter with the steady breathing-in-and-breathing-out of prayer. It seemed to highlight the difference between the merely popular (counted in Facebook likes or number of unique visitors) and the truly good, between the trending transient and the age-old perennial.
On closer inspection, however, the “Holy Spirit does not read social media” line reveals itself to be theologically unsound. It suggests that some forms of media are off-limits to Christian good news, or that the Holy Spirit would limit itself to only those forms of media hallowed by tradition. But if Catholics do not believe that the third person of the Trinity reads social media, just how small is our understanding of God, how narrow is our idea of redemption?
Even a conservative Catholic warrior like Jeffrey Mirus, founder of the Benedict-inspired CatholicCulture.org website, can write: “Besides simple realism, there is a very good reason for this refusal of the Church to condemn media in itself. Once any form of media becomes omnipresent in a culture, it necessarily becomes a chief means of reaching others with some sort of message. The Church, more than any other institution, exists to convey a message, a message which her Founder enjoined her to spread to the very ends of the earth. As a matter of principle, the Church seeks to use all media for apostolic purposes. This lies very deep in the Catholic DNA.”
The notion that the Holy Spirit does not read social media, then, strikes me as ultimately unapostolic.
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In one of the ironies of a papal transition, the papal message for World Communications Day 2013 (that would be Sunday, May 12) was written by or on behalf of the previous pope. (The message is traditionally released on Jan. 24, the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists—not that many journalists know their vocation has one.)
What was distinctive about the 2013 message was its embrace of the social media space. Its title summed up its thrust: “Social Networks: portals of truth and faith; new spaces for evangelization.”
Benedict XVI began by recognizing social media’s potential. “I wish to consider the development of digital social networks which are helping to create a new ‘agora,’ an open public square in which people share ideas, information and opinions, and in which new relationships and forms of community can come into being.”
He developed that theme of new relationships and communities coming into being in the social media space by focusing on the virtues of authenticity and inclusiveness.
He did not limit himself to generalizations; here, for example, is a wonderful (and unexpected) instance of specificity. “Social networks, as well as being a means of evangelization, can also be a factor in human development. As an example, in some geographical and cultural contexts where Christians feel isolated, social networks can reinforce their sense of real unity with the worldwide community of believers. The networks facilitate the sharing of spiritual and liturgical resources, helping people to pray with a greater sense of closeness to those who share the same faith.”
If social networks can unite isolated Christians, surely the Holy Spirit “reads” social media?
So the “joke in Rome” may have enjoyed wide circulation among the cardinals, but in truth it is a subtle dig at the cardinals themselves. If there were more of them sharing their insights before the conclave in that new space for evangelization called Twitter, perhaps the astounding outcome would have been anticipated, or at least reflected, in social media.
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