Hi and thanks for landing here. It might seem a bit backward, but I decided to start blogging only because I've been enjoying Twitter so much. While I love the 140 character limit of tweets, I realised that a blog would give me a place where I could have the luxury of saying a bit more. I've also set up here because I have a blogging project in mind... but more on that later.
Right now my face is stuck in the following books...
Late last week, one of the cardinals who will shortly be incarcerated in the Sistine Chapel to elect the next Pope, said that the new occupant of St Peter’s chair will have to be a tweeter. ‘Probably the most important aspect of my ministry, and I would project that into the ministry of the Holy Father, is bringing the gospel into the next generation,’ said Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington DC.
The trouble is, the cardinal has not himself ‘Don Wuerl’ at tweeting (forgive me father, I have punned). Cardinal Wuerl has just 21 tweets to his name, and the last time he hit the Tweet button was over a year ago. Perhaps this is his way of signalling that he’s not in the running.
I’ve been able to identify just 13 20 cardinals (out of a total college of 208) who are tweeting or have a Twitter account. Top of the list is Cardinal Timothy Dolan (age 63), Archbishop of New York, who has over 84,000 followers. His tweets are direct and upbeat and it looks like he writes them himself. ‘We’ve got a Lord who’s not so much concerned with what we’ve done in the past as with what we’re doing today – so cast out into the deep!’ he tweeted in January.
In second place (follower-wise) is Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi (age 70) with over 42,000 followers. He’s President of the Pontifical Council for Culture in the Vatican, and is currently being talked up as a possible next Pope (he was on at 14/1 with tipster Paddy Power when I last checked).
Ravasi is a frequent tweeter. He posted several times a day last week because he was leading a series of spiritual exercises at the Vatican called ‘The Face of God and the Face of the Human Person in the Prayers of the Psalms’. He tweeted extracts from the meditations, beginning with ‘1st Meditation: breathe, think, struggle, love: the verbs of prayer’.
A couple of days later he tweeted: ‘[The Christ] is an abyss of light. You need to close your eyes not to fall in (Kafka)’. His meditations are being praised for their cultural connectedness, and hopefully will become available in English.
Ravasi is especially interesting because he has two Twitter accounts, in Italian and English, with 39.7k and 2.5k followers apiece. His English account was opened in September last year and maybe it served as a forerunner for Benedict XVI’s @Pontifex account, in nine languages, which launched three months later.
Next is Cardinal Odilo Scherer (age 63), Archbishop of São Paulo, Brazil, who has tweeted more than any other cardinal (1609 tweets in 18 months). Scherer posts in Portuguese, with quotes from the Gospels, greetings and encouragements to individuals, plus pictures which look like his own smartphone snaps. ‘Good Sunday to all “followers” by twitter!’ he tweeted over the weekend.
I’ve listed the 18 cardinals below (thanks, Fr James Bradley, for the extra cardinals since I first posted this), with the most-followed at the top. Fr James has a Twitter list of all the tweeting cardinals. Their average age is 70, while the average age of the college as a whole is said to be 78. Please let me know if you discover others not on the list and I’ll add them.
Noteworthy are Cardinal Mahony, retired Archbishop of Los Angeles, who is under pressure not to attend the conclave because of his actions in the child abuse scandal; and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna, who has opened a Twitter account but has not yet issued forth a single tweet and is not accepting followers.
It’s the safest of safe bets that a Twitter silence will descend on all these accounts when the cardinals disappear into the conclave. But it will be fascinating to see which cardinal is first to tweet once the white smoke starts pumping from the Sistine Chapel roof. Maybe the tweets will be watched as keenly as the smoke.
Next Wednesday, an 85 year-old man will tweet and the media will report that it is news.
The Pope has debuted before on Twitter, in June 2011, when he sent a tweet to inaugurate the then-new Vatican news website, but this time he has his own Twitter account @pontifex. It’s clocked up half a million followers in the couple of days since the account opened for business.
That supernatural growth spurt is only one of the things that’s unusual about this account. For a start, it’s being run by a man who prefers writing in longhand to using a computer keyboard. And although the Vatican says the Pope ‘will tweet what he wants to tweet’, his involvement will be limited to signing off on the 140-character messages, which according to the Vatican Insider will be put together by staff in the Secretariat of State.
The Pope is apparently not going to follow anyone on Twitter. But actually, that’s not quite correct, as the @pontifex account is already following seven other people, who all turn out to be the @pontifex accounts in other languages. That means the Pope is following only himself, which isn’t very much in the spirit of things on Twitter.
Benedict will also not be retweeting anyone else’s tweets, although he will be replying to questions put to him on Twitter. That’s better than just delivering a monologue, although question and answer always puts the guy with the answers in the driving seat. Unsurprisingly, the @pontifex account has already been bombarded with questions and comments, ‘sometimes irreverent, often downright hateful’, according to Elizabeth Scalia, who blogs as The Anchoress.
The absence of retweeting, following others and actually writing your own tweets makes me wonder whether the whole exercise is for real. It certainly takes a lot of sincerity out it. I’m sure the more conservative sections of the Roman curia see this as a new megaphone for the Pope to deliver his one-way messages, but the world doesn’t work like that any more. It’s very Supreme Pontiff (pontifex maximus), and the @pontifex handle is a strong reminder of the worst aspects of the papacy.
However, there could be some promising signs. The Dalai Lama, who has thrived on Twitter for the past couple of years, is supported by a social media team which translates his teachings into tweets. That operation has not only worked well but seems to have been true to the Dalai Lama and true to the social medium too, so perhaps there is a model here that could work for Benedict. The Dalai Lama’s account, which follows 0 people and does not retweet, has 5.6 million followers, making him the 91st most followed person on Twitter.
The Catholic blogger Brandon Vogt yesterday offered five suggestions for the tweeting Pope. They included: engage in dialogue, be funny, and don’t be afraid. Says Vogt: ‘If you’re simply pushing out information, you’re not using Twitter’s full potential. The great power of Twitter is that it puts you in dialogue with a billion Catholics around the world – and billions of non-Catholics – most of whom see you as distant and inaccessible.’
The Pope has I think distinguished himself in reflecting on Internet culture over the past few years in his messages on World Communications Day. In his 2011 message, he talked positively about the way people can connect with each other through social media. He said: ‘Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others.’
If Benedict can turn that thought into action by breaking out of the confines of his office and finding an authentically human way of communicating with the social media world, that would be a very hopeful sign.
It’s a big thing to hope, but if the Dalai Lama can do it, maybe the Pope can too.
And while they’re about it, perhaps they could follow each other.
I’ve enjoyed the Pope’s messages over the past three years on World Communications Day, which was created by Vatican II to provide an annual message to the church and the world on the subject of media. Benedict has done some very creative theological reflection on social media and the new possibilities for relating with others through them.
If there’s another major church leader providing this sort of thinking on new media, I’d like to know who they are.
Although the 2012 event is eight months away (it happens on 20 May), in a miracle of forward planning the message will be published in January and the subject of the message was announced today. The Vatican displays a level of OCD that others can only dream of.
But I do like the sound of the message, whose theme, unexpectedly, is silence.
In the thought of Pope Benedict XVI, silence is not presented simply as an antidote to the constant and unstoppable flow of information that characterises society today but rather as a factor that is necessary for its integration. Silence, precisely because it favours habits of discernment and reflection, can in fact be seen primarily as a means of welcoming the word. We ought not to think in terms of a dualism, but of the complementary nature of two elements which when they are held in balance serve to enrich the value of communication and which make it a key factor that can serve the new evangelisation.
The Roman Church may be semper eadem (ever the same), but will the Vatican website ever change its design? It seems unlikely, despite the ‘redesign’ currently being hailed by Catholic commentators. The website was launched on Christmas Day 1995, and its parchment-look background has always started to look tired after even a few visits, so I’ve been interested to see when it would be dropped.
Sadly, the only thing to change in the current shakeup is the homepage (pictured above, or click here for the real thing), which now looks to me like a Casio sports watch straight out of the 1980s – packed with features that make you ask, where do I begin? I can count no less than 45 links on the page, which is hardly the simple welcome to visitors you would expect from such a heavily visited domain (almost 14,500 websites link into vatican.va).
Most of the other pages in the site look as they’ve always done – narrow columns (of about 600 pixels) packed with brown text which scroll forever with hardly a picture to break the monotony.
Refreshingly, the website is run by a woman, Sister Judith Zoebelein, who is editorial director of the Internet Office of the Holy See. She’s been at the helm since the Vatican went online, and her role as founder of the website was recognised by the Pope earlier this year. He gave her the highest honour possible for a nun: a sign of his esteem for her, of course, but also of his esteem for the Internet.
In a fascinating ad hocvideo interview in 2007, Sister Judith spoke to journalists about the vision and practical work that goes into producing the Vatican website. Asked how many people work on it, she replied, ‘Seventeen. Too few, believe me!’
She seems like a sparky, progressive person, so maybe the slow pace of change could be explained by something she also said.
‘We’re trying to integrate something of technology into a 2,000 year-old institution. Sometimes I feel that the echo waves have to go all the way back 2,000 years and then they come back up again and you find the integration or the mix between the technology and the institution. To me that’s been a challenge, but it’s also fascinating.’
It looks like the challenge might currently be winning out over the fascinating.
One of the enjoyments of being in Westminster last Friday for the arrival of the Pope was meeting Niamh Moloney, diocesan youth officer for outreach in Northampton, who easily walked off with the prize for most original papal banner (pictured above). I wasn’t alone in spotting it. Niamh took her banner to every papal event and became the media-friendly face of young Catholicism for the Pope’s visit.
‘We’re unofficial members of the Pope’s entourage,’ Niamh told the Catholic News Service. ‘We’ve been walking for three days with these posters. I’m a papal stalker.’
I’m full of admiration for people who get out there and do imaginative and unexpected things for their faith, so I asked Niamh about her highlights of stalking Papa Benny.
‘It was very interesting outside the Abbey on Friday, being attacked by Christians. The Pope was talking about putting God at the heart of our culture and our lives, and I thought, surely this is a time when we should be sticking together and finding the things we agree on, rather than people holding signs calling the Pope the anti-Christ and screaming scripture verses at young people like us, who are absolutely in love with the Lord Jesus.’
On the Saturday, at the vigil in Hyde Park, Niamh and her friends arrived three hours early to get a good spot where they could see the Pope. But then…
‘We got a phone call asking if we could go and do a media interview. We knew for certain that if we went, we would never get back to the front. We had a tearful moment when we decided our mission of making a joyful noise for Catholics everywhere was more important than our own personal desire to see the Pope up close… so we lifted up our chairs and left.’
Despite that experience, which Niamh describes as ‘learning the joy of humility,’ the prayer vigil was a significant renewal of faith for her and her friends.
‘Here were 80,000 Catholics and the Pope praying in Hyde Park, only a few metres from where Christians had been martyred for their faith at Tyburn gallows. That was an incredible moment for the renewal of Catholicism in this country. What better place to renew the faith of Catholics than at the very spot where people died to save it?’
Standing on sunny Lambeth Bridge on Friday, waiting for the Pope to emerge from Lambeth Palace and his meeting with the bishops and archbishops of the Church of England, I found myself next to Sister Veronica, a little nun from Cornwall with sky-blue eyes and a smile as wide as the ocean, who was waving a jolly big, yellow papal flag.
Everyone loved her: people kept coming over to ask if they could take her picture, for which she happily stood, and the policemen lining the barricades also stepped forward every now and then to ask if she was ok? Sister V, who has worked with young people for many years, had been on the bridge for five hours and was determined not to miss the Pope as he went by on his way to Westminster.
A mini-bus sped past us and she waved her papal flag at it. ‘I’ll wave at anything now,’ she said, laughing, ‘but those really were cardinals – I could see their red sashes round their waists.’
Behind us, Big Ben struck 5 o’clock, the time when the Popemobile was due to cross the bridge. I’d been tweeting events from my viewpoint all afternoon, and so hit the send button on the following: ‘Big Ben strikes 5… time for the Pope to finish up his tea, get into Ice Cream One and come over to Westminster.’
A policeman wandered over and said to Sister V: ‘He’ll be here in a couple of minutes.’
‘How do you know?’ I asked.
The policeman turned a perfectly straight face to me: ‘I can’t reveal my sources.’
Seven minutes later, the Popemobile swung onto the far end of Lambeth Bridge looking exactly as someone described it on Twitter a few days ago: ‘a bulletproof ice cream van’. It was surrounded by fridge-shaped men in well-cut dark suits who furiously eyeballed faces in the crowd as they walked the Popemobile along.
Above them, the Pope was imprisoned inside a greeny-blue bubble, sitting on a white plastic throne and waving in an old-man kind of way to the crowds on either side. So thick is the Popemobile’s armoured glass that he looked more like a hologram than the real thing, but one glance at the Vatican’s grim security detail told you this was the one and only Pope of Rome.
Sister Veronica hopped up onto a granite ledge behind me to get a better view, and as the Popemobile drew level with me on the crown of the bridge, I gained eye contact for the splittest of split seconds with Joseph Ratzinger as his pale blue eyes passed over me. I hope he did the same for Sister V, who was much more deserving of his attention.
The streets were stiff with crowds trying to slipstream behind the Holy Vehicle, but I found a back way, grabbed a coffee to drink as I walked, and came out by Great Smith Street, right in front of the west door of Westminster Abbey.
Coming towards me through the crowd was a highly pumped-up black preacher of the ranting school, blasting a way through the tightly-packed people by the sheer force of his shouted sermon. He was wearing a glossy barbecue apron printed with a Bible text. I tried to talk to him, but he ignored me and launched tunelessly into the evangelical chorus, ‘I love my Jesus, my Jesus loves me.’
The Popemobile pulled up outside the Abbey, and a forest of arms sprouted from the crowd, each hand holding a camera, wildly pointing and clicking in search of a Pope shot, however blurred. Once he was inside the Abbey and evening prayer had started, I looked around at the banners jostling for attention.
There was a huge sign reading ‘Welcome Holy Father’, and another with the less snappy, but still papal-friendly, ‘On this rock I will build my Church’.
More unpredictable was ‘We [heart] you Papa more than beans on toast’ held aloft by Niamh, a Catholic youth worker from North London. She was also wearing yellow and white papal wellington boots she had specially made, which I’m sure the Pope might like to swap for his red slippers.
Right next to ‘Welcome Holy Father’ was a black and white banner which sternly demanded, ‘No Popery’. And surrounding it, an armada of smaller banners made by old school Protestants, who were there in force. A couple of burly men from their team, sporting ‘Exalt Christ not the Pope’ t-shirts, told me they were from Zion Baptist in Glasgow, a Calvinistic church which has picketed Marilyn Manson in the past, and has followed the Pope down to London for this protest.
There were times in the next hour when I thought fighting might break out as Catholic and Protestant banners jockeyed for position in front of the TV cameras.
I talked to a Catholic woman carrying a huge picture of Benedict XVI and she was angry and upset. Her lovely day out with Papa Benny was being spoiled. ‘There are stupid people here shouting out that the Pope is a pedophile,’ she told me.
The streets of London have never sounded more theological. I passed one man explaining the teaching of St Irenaeus of Lyons to a small group of listeners. And further along, while rough-looking men hawked Pope badges to passers-by (‘Only a quid, mate’), a tall Catholic was in passionate conversation with a short Protestant about Matthew chapter 16, each man jabbing a finger at the other.
And all the while, as dusk fell, the Abbey stood huge, silent and pregnant with the people, priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, the Pope and the hard men of Vatican security inside. I was following the service on Twitter and was able to read the Pope’s address. With typical Ratzinger pugnacity he asserted his primacy as the successor of St Peter and reminded his listeners that the ancient building once belonged to Rome.
We waited. It grew dark. The banners manoeuvred. The arguments raged. Grown men in plastic aprons shouted themselves hoarse for the Lord.
Then the west doors swung open and the Abbey bells rang out, like the most joyous wedding, and the crowd went up in a rapture. In fact, it felt so like a wedding that I half expected to see that odd couple, Rowan Williams and Joe Ratzinger, walk out hand in hand surrounded by clergy bridesmaids in lacy frocks… but that’s another universe.
In short order, the Pope entered a dark car and his motorcade swept from the Abbey. I couldn’t help noticing that the last vehicle was an ambulance. It was a Roman triumph, with mortality whispering in the ear.
A new sign has been vouchsafed to us in the form of a dove-shaped cloud in the sky. John Gray, a former RAF photographer (and former Catholic), spotted the cloud from his back garden on Wednesday night, the eve of the Pope arriving in Britain. His interpretation? ‘When I saw it I thought that it probably signifies what the Pope needs – a bit of peace and happiness.’
However, with all due respect to Mr Gray, it’s surely clear that the cloud is not any old dove, but the Twitter logo. God is saying to this generation: ‘Twitter is my fave social media. Go forth and tweet.’ The sign must also be confirmation that the Almighty is pleased with the new version of Twitter, which is being rolled out in the next few days.
Above: the Green Room at BBC Radio 4 this afternoon.
An interesting day of new meets old media. The Pope landed in Edinburgh at 10.30am for the start of his state visit to Britain, and while the plane was still in the air I thought I’d tweet his arrival for the Ship of Fools feed. I’ve done this a couple of times now: posted a fast-running Twitter commentary as events unfold – but you have to be light on your feet to think up the jokes in time, and willing to risk looking stupid when some of them fall flat.
In all, I posted 19 tweets, taking us from the Pope’s plane landing, to him meeting the Queen, and then on to lunch via a Popemobile dash through the packed streets of Edinburgh. The most successful were (these all got 10+ retweets)...
shipoffoolscom Dove One has touched down in Edinburgh after some tense moments with air traffic control, who do not speak Latin.
shipoffoolscom The Pope is meeting the lovely old Queen. Which must happen to him every 5 mins in the corridors of the Vatican.
shipoffoolscom Queen to Pope: ‘And what do you do?’
shipoffoolscom Archbishop Rowan says through spokesman that he would have had a haircut and beard trim, but only does it for special occasions.
In the middle of all that intensity, I got a call from PM on Radio 4 (their late afternoon show) inviting me to go in and talk about the Ship of Fools papal tat. In the taxi on the way to the Beeb, I thought up a nice comedy scenario where the Pope jumps into the mosh pit at one of his masses to ‘get with the faithful’. I didn’t think I’d get a chance to use it, but Carolyn Quinn (interviewing) gave me the perfect in just before the end of the piece, and I took it with both hands.
I was interviewed outside Waterloo station yesterday for Channel 4 about the Ship of Fools Picnic with the Pontiff feature, where we’ve collected religious merchandise for the Pope’s visit. See above for the interview, and see the Weird and wonderful souvenirs piece on the Channel 4 website.
The Pope’s cruising into town in a couple of days, so tonight saw a big debate over priestly celibacy in the Odeon West End. Appropriately, the event was sponsored by Christian Connection, the online experts in bringing Christians (but not Catholic priests) together for a little agape and probably a lot of eros.
We were first treated to a screening of the 2001 film, Conspiracy of Silence, in which a young Irish chap has to choose between his girl and his church, with subplots involving gay priests, HIV cover-ups, the church protecting its own at all costs, and a pantomime Bishop. There was a wonderful moment when a gay seminarian invited a buff fellow student up to his room with the words, ‘Why don’t you come along? We’re studying Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians.’
Just when you think you’ve heard all the classic euphemisms, another one rushes up wanting to hump your leg.
Helena Kennedy opened the batting by saying that issues of gender, reproduction, sexual identity and celibacy are not about sex, but power. Similar to the issue of rape, it has taken us a long time to understand this distinction. ‘The imposition of sexual abstinence is a mode of control over the interior lives of priests. It is inhuman and infantilising.’
She added that it is and always has been about the money: ‘Celibate priests are cheap!’ Huge laughter and cries of agreement from the audience. I was sitting in the front row with writer Simon Parke and he leaned over to say, ‘That’s the evening’s soundbite.’
I was looking forward to hearing the pro-celibacy arguments, but Bishop Malcolm McMahon’s opening statement was long, cloudy and didn’t cut much mustard with a restless audience. His arguments were drawn from church tradition and obscure passages in the book of Hebrews. I’m sure they’re convincing and potent among priests, but they sound very eccentric outside the cosy world of the presbytery.
He did say something I found sympathetic and striking about how priests ‘configure themselves’ to Christ the high priest, who is not clothed in splendid robes, but instead is naked, carrying nails and wearing a crown of thorns. He said celibacy was not about power, but sacrifice. Good point.
Thereafter, we had a lively debate, with plenty of audience clapping, jeering and ironic laughter, but sadly no peanut-throwing. At one point, a nun dressed in white robes and asking a question from the floor was heckled. Frank Skinner: ‘You can’t heckle a nun!’
One of my favourite observations was by Tina Beattie, in a fiery riposte to the opposite team who were saying that priests model themselves on the celibate Christ: ‘It seems the defining characteristic of God incarnate is that he had a penis he didn’t use.’ When I twittered this (I was tweeting pretty much continuously throughout the debate) @davidmkeen shot back with ‘must have had one heck of a bladder then’.
Most mysterious moment of the evening was by Jack Valero, who said, ‘Chastity is like throwing yourself onto a hand grenade to save your friend.’ Personally, I think that’s taking Opus Dei-style self-mortification a bit far.
Like most people in the audience, I enjoyed Frank Skinner’s contributions which were witty but also heartfelt and appealing. He said he supported celibacy because he wants the priest to be a holy man. ‘I want someone who has the time in his life to follow the two basic rules: to love God and to love one another. Because we, the laity, don’t have time to risk that level of holiness, I want him to be that.’
As the debate digressed into women and the church, he said, ‘I think it’s a disgrace we don’t have women priests. At some point in the future the Pope, whoever she is, will be apologising to women just as the Vatican apologised to Galileo in 1992.’
At the Greenbelt festival, I’ve just been at the press conference with Peter Tatchell, who’s speaking here on the spread of homophobia in Africa, which in many cases is supported by the churches and underpinned by Christian proof-texting. In the conference he was asked about the Pope’s state visit to Britain, which he is protesting at a public debate next week, and at a march and rally from Hyde Park Corner on the day the Pope arrives in Britain.
He said, ‘Britain doesn’t give state visits to the Grand Mufti of Mecca or the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, so why are we giving it to the Pope? Most of the events in his visit to the UK are pastoral or are about proselytising for the Catholic Church, so why should the taxpayer fund it? In addition, the Pope holds harsh, extreme and intolerant views on a range of moral subjects, including women’s rights, gay equality and the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV.’
Asked if he would try to arrest the Pope, similar to the citizen’s arrest he made on Robert Mugabe in 1999, he said, ‘I don’t think it’s going to be possible, much as I would like to.’
I asked him if he was at all sympathetic to the dilemma of Rowan Williams in trying to maintain Anglican church unity over the issue of homosexuality. He flatly answered no.
He said, ‘Rowan Williams is a lovely man, but he’s deeply compromised. He fully supports gay equality and human rights for LGBT people in private, but hasn’t got the courage to say so publicly. At the drop of a hat he will denounce Bishop Gene Robinson, but won’t say a word about the persecution of gay people around the world by his fellow Christian leaders. He’s gone to great lengths to reassure out-and-out homophobes such as Akinola and Orombi, and has criticised the appointment of gay bishops in the US.’
‘He’s been compromised by holding high office. What’s the point of being Archbishop if you can’t hold on to your beliefs?’
My very own Benedictaphone arrived in the post this morning – one of the souvenirs unaccountably not being sold by the official UK papal visit store.
This pocket pontiff voice recorder allows you to record your own message and then play it back as if HH the Pope was saying it, which should lead to some very special moments for pilgrims. The gadget thoughtfully includes a key ring for your very own keys of St Peter.
The Benedictaphone and other unlikely papal gadgets will shortly be featured in Gadgets for God on Ship of Fools.