I remember being young and reading Dante’s Divine Comedy for the first time. It was my first encounter with the concept of indulgences. For those not so well versed in the past practices of the Catholic Church, indulgences are acts the faithful can perform in order to reduce their time in purgatory after death. In the middle ages they were often sold by clerics for money and power, in the modern day they have been scaled back a bit. Small indulgences still exist, often for seeing the current pope speak in person.
“That’s vaguely interesting, why are you writing about it here?,” you might ask. That’s simple: The pope is now offering plenary indulgences for those who follow him on Twitter and adhere to a few simple strictures.
For social followers who have previously confessed their sins, have been absolved by a priest and have attended mass, they can follow along live through the social networking site and receive that special forgiveness. Users must follow the events live to participate.
‘You don’t obtain an indulgence like you get a coffee from a vending machine,’ Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, the president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication, told Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary. ‘It’s not enough just to watch a Mass online or follow Pope Francis via live streaming on your iPad or by connecting to Pope2You.net. These are just devices. What really counts is that the Tweet that the Pope will send from Brazil or the photos from World Youth Day produce genuine spiritual fruit in the heart of the person.’
While the emotive headlines about the pope giving away indulgences are common in the wake of the announcement, this once more shows Pope Francis as a pontiff who understands that, to stay relevant, the church needs to communicate in the way that the people do. In the early years of the 21st century this means social media, an arena in which we are seeing the church more and more often. The Guardian points out a few of the new digital initiatives:
Apart from the papal Twitter account, the Vatican has launched an online news portal supported by an app, a Facebook page, and it plans to use the online social networking site Pinterest.
While not the “Catholicism WOW!” campaign from Kevin Smith’s movie Dogma, this use of social media and online communications channels by the church shows its attempt to market itself to the latest generation and to generate a greater perception of relevance to those it wishes to attract. Sounds just like any other group using social media to get its voice out there.
What do you think? Indulgences for online actions? Official church social media channels? Let us know!
George “Loki” Williams is the community and brand manager for award wining game company Savage Mojo, Ltd. and the owner of SocialGumbo, LLC, an online consultancy specializing in Web content and online communications. Loki has produced content for clients including the Open Society Institute, National Association of Broadcasters, Kobold Press, and Kaiser Permanente. His work has been seen or written about in The New York Times, The BBC, Air America, The Gambit Weekly, and NOLA.com, among others.