Don’t underestimate Pope Benedict’s digital legacy

Over the past few days, I have watched and read pundits and prognosticators try to label Pope Benedict’s pontificate and outline his accomplishments. As the mainstream media is discovering, due to the size of the Church and nature of the Papacy, it is often hard to determine what accomplishments and failures can be attributed to a given pope1.

However, one area of this Holy Father’s legacy that does have definable accomplishments is in new media and the “digital church”. It might be hard and almost laughable to think of an 85-year-old church leader leaving a digital legacy, but what Pope Benedict has done is really quite amazing. Here are four major accomplishments that I point to in order to support this.

1. @Pontifex

http://twitter.com/pontifex – 1.5+ million followers

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Sure, I think most will acknowledge that the Pope’s tweeting is not as free-flowing and spontaneous as most of us are used to on Twitter, but it does interject very profound thoughts to consider between pictures of your friends lunch and the latest Harlem Shake video.

2. The Vatican’s YouTube Channel

https://www.youtube.com/vatican – 8+ million videos viewed

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Like Twitter, YouTube is one of the most popular ways to reach people online. It is on your computer, phone and now on most TVs. The Vatican’s YouTube channel puts the Pope and the Holy See in front of the people. Since launching the channel, nearly every public statement that Pope Benedict has made has been available for viewing worldwide within moments.

3. News.va

http://www.news.va/en

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I think any user of the modern web cringes whenever they visit the Vatican’s official site. While the content on the site is good, it is hard to find anything and the parchment background reeks of 1995. That being said, when the new Vatican News site was announced, I was cautiously pessimistic. As it turns out, they did a pretty good job of creating a site with modern appeal and up-to-date information that serves as a good hub for their digital identity.

4. The Pope App

http://www.thepopeapp.com/

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In a world of iPhones and Androids2, the clear emphasis in reaching people has shifted to mobile. Although News.va was a great step forward, The Pope App put News.va in the mobile sphere, adding another avenue to get news and other Catholic content in front of the faithful.

There are many that are quick to point out the flaws and shortcomings of the items I’ve talked about, and on many points, I am likely to agree. As first steps, however, I think that they are all good. The Church has a long history of methodical mission building when evangelizing in new domains. The digital domain is no different. Our first digital missions might not look like cathedrals, yet, but they are vital in establishing a foothold in a realm that is decisively secular.

There are also those that would say that these missions were inevitable and to attach them to Pope Benedict’s legacy would be giving him too much credit. I would agree that Pope Benedict isn’t sitting around picking out color schemes for websites or inquiring about his app’s approval status, but I think it sells him very short to imply that he is not aware of the importance of meeting the people where they are. As a pope of the New Evangelization, there is no doubt he understands the impact of technology and was an encouraging force behind these efforts, even if he does not understand the technologies themselves.

A pope’s legacy is guided very much by the culture and times of his papacy. Pope Paul VI was pope during tumultuous cultural changes, and his legacy was defined by his attempt to counter those changes within the Church which included his formalization of Catholic pro-life theology with “Humanae Vitae”. Pope John Paul II was pope during the height of the Cold War and the rise of television. He was also pope when international travel was becoming more common, and he took advantage of it by becoming the most-traveled Pope in Church History. This allowed him to play a vital role in ending Communist aggression and establish himself as an international personality and leader.

Pope Benedict XVI has been pope during the age of the digital culture. While his efforts during this time might be overlooked by many, don’t underestimate his digital legacy. Just as Paul VI did in the pro-life movement and John Paul II did in establishing a traveling papacy, Benedict XVI has set a standard for future popes in regard to the digital church. Let’s face it, when the next pope is elected, most of us will not see the white smoke in person, but many of us will see the hashtag #HabemusPapum on Twitter, and the digital church will be there to help us see Church history unfold. For this, Pope Benedict deserves some credit.


1Footnote Rant: The media does seem much more capable or willing to unfairly attach failures to a pope’s legacy than they do accomplishments.
2An Android version of “The Pope App” is expected in late February.