From beatification to blogmeet: How the Church communicates

The Vatican's blogmeet (Photo: Intermirifica)

The last few days have been a sort of sleep-deprived series of powerful impressions. From trying to stay awake in the press gallery on the left colonnade above St Peter’s Square after a night wandering through Rome following the prayer vigil for JPII in the Circus Maximus to the much vaunted Vatican bloggers’ meeting on Monday, there has been a lot to take in. (including a lot of ice cream).

My first few impressions of the Vatican blogmeet follow. There may be a later analysis piece about the Church, web 2.0 and the new media generally if I can find the time to think about it more deeply.

It was a thrill to meet the fellow travellers in the Catholic blogosphere, even if the Vatican conference was not about Catholic blogging but about the Church engaging with blogging in general. The brainchild of Richard Rouse of the Pontifical Council for Culture – apologies again to Richard for taking his name in vain in an earlier post—the blogging conference was a joint effort between his department and the Pontifical Council for Social Communication, but apparently had input from the different parts of the Vatican’s communications branches.

The first half of the conference featured bloggers: including a wonderfully Benedictine talk (in the tradition of the OSB and also B16) by Elizabeth Scalia which you can find here, one by Fr Roderick Vonhogen who started to blog about Starwars but was soon using the internet to evangelise, and an interesting talk by Francois Jeanne-Beylot who said that the blogosphere was somewhere where people were all trying to shout the loudest and that Catholics had something worth shouting loudly about.

The second half, chaired by La Civilta Cattolica’s cultural editor Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ, featured the institutional panel, which opened with remarks by the director of the Sala Stampa, Fr Federico Lombardi SJ. The speakers were all very positive about blogs and the blogosphere (OSV has a report here).

Thomas Peters, the American Papist who runs CatholicVote over in the States, got up and asked when the Vatican would give bloggers accreditation. James Bradley, a young member of the Ordinariate who runs the Ordinariate Portal tweeted in reply: “Can’t bloggers just apply for accreditation?”

Mr Peters’ question and comments by Fr Lombardi about the Vatican Information Service’s blog illustrated one of the problems, which hampered the discussion: namely that the term “blog” was never defined. It seemed to me that for the members of the institutional panel, including Fr Lombardi, a blog was predominantly a source of alternative news as provided by the excellent Rocco Palmo who was chairing the first panel or Paolo Rodari, an expert Vaticanista and journalist who provides news and analysis. Their impression was probably not vastly helped by the presence of quite a few journalist bloggers (yes, your ‘onour, guilty as charged). Fr Spadaro’s Cyberteologia was the exception.

We all know the blogosphere is a whole lot more complex—which is something that was made clear in the speeches of the first panel but then not really taken up again later—there are news blogs, opinion blogs, evangelisation blogs, humorous blogs, blogs which describe religious life or offer a take on daily life.

Fr Lombardi did allude to personal aspect of the blog when he began speaking. The personal side of a blog is both its strength and weakness in terms of the Church’s ability to harness the energy of the bloggers who write about their personal lives, their thoughts and their faith. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot became clearer as the result of the meeting. I think that it is probably impossible for the institutional communications structures of the Church to use the blog effectively— precisely because the official structures of the Church must by definition represent something, must by definition, be magisterial.

And yet, the blog—even if it was declared passé by Wired Magazine as long ago as 2008—has had an incredible impact on the Church’s ability to communicate with people on the outside.

This is why the news, presented by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications’ Thaddeus Jones, of a new Vatican website, which gathers the Vatican’s different sources of communication in one place, is brilliant. When it is launched in a month or so, it will help bloggers communicate about the Church better because the information will be more easily accessible.

According to Beylot, French bloggers were quoted more in the French press in the last year than the official spokesman of the Catholic bishops.

A recent article in The Economist described the vibrancy entrepreneurship and enthusiasm of the young French IT sector, which was evident in the attitudes of those who took part in the conference. The French bloggers who I met at the conference: Fr Stephane Lemessin, Sophie LeBrun , Gwenola de Coutard and Paul who writes a Theology of the Body blog, bear testament to that. They are organised and joyous. French Catholic bloggers have a network of Sacristains, which is effectively a group blog. They may not agree on everything but have hefty and friendly debates and continue to use the web to evangelise. The Fraternity of the Apostles of Saint Medard, a group of young Catholic bloggers and tweeters who like beer, hosts regular meetings.

The Vatican’s blogging meeting has provided a starting point, a meeting place between the bloggers and the Church’s communications’ media. I shall be curious to see where it goes—if there is another Vatican sponsored meeting of bloggers and users of web 2.0, I hope we will see friends from Africa. They were missed.