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Evangelization and the ‘Digital Continent’


Alton J. Pelowski

Pope Francis meets with Archbishop Claudio Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, July 7 to observe the features of The Pope App 2.0. Also pictured is Thaddeus Jones, project coordinator. (Photo by L’Osservatore Romano)

After decades of diplomatic service with the Holy See, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli was appointed to lead the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in 2007. Under his leadership, the council has launched a number of new media initiatives, including the Vatican’s official YouTube channel in 2009, the Web portal News.va in 2011 and the @Pontifex Twitter handle in 2012.

The Knights of Columbus directly supported the development of News.va as well as “The Pope App,” which was launched in January 2013. Following Pope Francis’ election two months later, The Pope App became the most-downloaded news application in many countries, including the United States, Canada, Mexico and Poland.

To commemorate the July 4 launch of The Pope App 2.0, Columbia Editor Alton J. Pelowski interviewed Archbishop Celli about the new app, the digital revolution and the implications for the new evangelization.

Columbia: What led the Vatican to expand its communications efforts to include new media?

Archbishop Celli: Today, with advances in Internet and smartphone technology, communication has almost no limits. People are interconnected all around the world. As a result, new technologies are changing our culture and creating a place where people are living.

I remember when we proposed to Pope Benedict XVI the possibility of opening a YouTube channel. He told us very clearly, “I want to be where people are.” This is the milieu where people are living — hundreds of millions. We are therefore invited to announce the Gospel to the men and women of today on this “digital continent,” as Pope Benedict put it.

The Second Vatican Council spoke about media and instruments of communication — mainly radio, television, film and the press. With these instruments we announced the Gospel. Today, it is important for us to grasp that evangelization is happening, is a reality, in the context of social networks, and that we are invited to bear witness to Christ there.

In other words, the challenge for the Church today is not to use the Internet to evangelize, but to evangelize from within this digital milieu.

The mission of the Church is always the same: We are invited to announce the Gospel to the men and women of today. This is our point of reference. In being present in such a context, we are not simply “bombing” the social networks with religious messages. No, what we have to do is give witness — personal witness. Pope Francis said very clearly to the young people in Assisi last year (citing St. Francis): “Always preach the Gospel and, if necessary, use words!”

Columbia: How has The Pope App developed since it was first launched?

Archbishop Celli: We were aware of the great success of The Pope App, and we thought that the moment had arrived to offer people an even better, more effective way to follow the activities of the Holy Father. The second edition of the Pope App includes much-improved graphics and functionality.

The app integrates with News.va, which is an aggregator for news — a new way for the Holy See to be present in the field of communications. This makes key sources of information accessible, which is very important. The content of News.va is updated three times per day and is available in five languages.

The Pope App is the best way to be near the Holy Father — to listen to what he is saying and follow what he is doing — as well as to discover what is happening in the Church. Its many features, including live streaming, allow you to follow the Holy Father’s major events, such as general audiences and religious ceremonies.

Columbia: Who is the audience of the Vatican’s new media initiatives?

Archbishop Celli: Today we have around 90,000 visitors per day to the News.va website. It is also important for us to be present on Facebook, where we reach millions of people in English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French.

With News.va and The Pope App, Catholics can easily obtain faithful, up-to-date information about what the Holy Father is saying and doing, and also what is happening in the Church. It is especially relevant for Knights of Columbus, who are committed to the Holy Father and his teachings.

News.va is even giving great support to the bishops. For example, during the canonization ceremonies of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, many bishops approached me to thank me for what we were doing, because they now have access, day to day, to all of the teachings of the Holy Father — his addresses, homilies and reflections.

I remember one bishop told me that, because of the time difference, he was able to read the Holy Father’s Christmas Eve homily and quote it in his own homily the next morning. This was beautiful.

Columbia: We live in an era of sound bites and constant distraction, which increasingly seems to be hostile to contemplation and silence. What advice do you have for Catholics trying to live and communicate Gospel values amid this cultural atmosphere?

Archbishop Celli: Humanly speaking, if I want to give depth and strength to the words I convey, I need silence. The same goes with evangelization. In approaching Jesus Christ, we discover that he loves us first. And we need moments of silence to perceive this. We cannot always remain surrounded by noise.

What we are also trying to do, therefore, is to help people rediscover the meaning of silence. In his message for World Communications Day in 2012, Pope Benedict stressed that silence is part of communication. We must rediscover this essential truth. To communicate effectively requires that ability to listen effectively — receiving what Jesus is speaking deep in my heart.

Columbia: In his message for this year’s World Communications Day, Pope Francis described how the digital world can serve an “authentic culture of encounter” and that “Christian witness, thanks to the Internet, can thereby reach the peripheries of human existence.” What does it mean to say that digital media can serve a “culture of encounter”?

Archbishop Celli: In today’s society, a person who is not considered “productive” runs the risk not only of being unappreciated, but also of being eliminated. Pope Francis reminds us of the attitude of the Good Samaritan, which means making ourselves responsible for those we encounter.

The Holy Father used the example of the field hospital after a battle. Why? Because people are really suffering. The attitude of the Good Samaritan is one of proximity, which means taking care of the person in need. When Jesus concludes the parable of the Good Samaritan, he says, “Go and do the same.” This is a new style of living.

In reference to communication, this means that Christians must look to dialogue with others, listening to them and accompanying them in their struggles. New technologies offer the possibility to listen and receive — almost immediately — what the Holy Father is saying, as well as a means to personally engage with others.

Pope Francis emphasizes that the doors of the Church must always remain open. This means that people can perceive that they are accepted and loved, no matter their condition in life; it also means that disciples must go outside and encounter other people who are suffering, feeling alone and facing difficulties.

Columbia: Last year, the Church celebrated the 50th anniversary of Inter Mirifica, the Second Vatican Council’s decree on social communications, and January 2015 will mark the 10th anniversary of The Rapid Development, Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter on the same subject. How has the wisdom expressed in these documents guided the Church as the world of communications and technology has continued to change?

Archbishop Celli: With Inter Mirifica, an ecumenical council spoke about the topic of communications for the first time. Pope John XXIII wanted this theme to be discussed and evaluated by the council fathers.

Later, in 1975, Pope Paul VI said in his apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, that the Church “would feel guilty before the Lord” if she did not use these instruments to spread the Gospel. Pope John Paul II wrote The Rapid Development, one of his last documents, in 2005, when the new technologies and social networks were already present.

We are therefore taking advantage of the technology that comes into our hands. Today, we have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flickr. Tomorrow, these instruments will change.

The mission, however, is always the same: to announce the Gospel, to announce Jesus. For us, the challenge and the responsibility is to be there, because many people will know Jesus and the Gospel only if we are present. Many people will never enter a church, so the only chance for them to hear the Gospel is if Christian disciples announce Jesus where they are. I think this is a challenge for us, but also a great opportunity.

Columbia: What additional advice would give you our readers regarding new media and the new evangelization?

Archbishop Celli: I know many of your readers are present on Facebook and elsewhere. My invitation to the Knights of Columbus is to be witnesses of Jesus in the social networks where they are already present, but do not proselytize. Rather, bear witness to an authentic synthesis of life and the Gospel. Paul VI had a wonderful expression: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”

All Catholics, Knights included, first need to nurture themselves with the Gospel of Jesus. The new Pope App also allows them to be nourished with the words of the successor of Peter.