Michael O’Loughlin, the national reporter for the Boston Globe’s web-based publication Crux, has provided the church and world a new way of viewing the Petrine ministry in the twenty-first century. Twitter. That odd social media platform that limits posts to 140 characters (at least for now) is oftentimes misunderstood and not well explained. Even I, who have and use a twitter account @DanHoranOFM have a difficult time explaining what exactly it is to others who may not be familiar with how it works. In truth, I’ve never been able to explain it well because it has always struck me as more experientially valuable than rationally necessary. It is a means by which lots of news and information is shared in real time, but sui generis and incomparable with other means of communication.
It is for this reason that, although Benedict XVI and Pope Francis have both had at least a nominal presence on Twitter (@pontifex), it can be especially difficult to understand the value or significance of evangelical ministry by way of Tweeting. That is, until O’Loughlin’s book.
Early in his introduction, O’Loughlin identifies exactly this sort of incredulous approach to twitter.
Some people dismiss Twitter because of the limit to the number of characters allowed per thought. There can’t be much deep thinking going on, they say. But critics miss the point. Figuring out how to distill a complex message down to the essentials, to capture someone’s attention in a busy, rushed world, and to convince them to consider how they live their lives is a lot more difficult to do in a few words than it is in an essay or op-ed. But do it well, and you will leave your audience with something powerful to reflect on throughout the day. Do it really well, and you might even change the world (3).
Hyperbolic claims about “changing the world” aside, O’Loughlin’s point is well put. And I believe he captures part of what is so elusive about the role of Twitter in our world today.
Pope Francis’s presence on social media platforms is a mediated presence, but one that the pontiff has complete approval over and supervision of, O’Loughlin explains. One of the great things about the succinct messages that can be conveyed to millions of people via Twitter is that they are often messages that must be concentrated and focused, with each word and letter deliberately chosen. Whereas anyone can rant for thousands of words, offering a verbose pile of written extroversion in hopes of discovering a point, a successful Twitter account must be direct and simple.
Like Pope Francis’s consistent call for Christians to return to the simplicity of the Gospel without the self-interested gloss often applied to the sacred text, his Twitter account offers direct and accessible messages of hope, challenge, solidarity and, sometimes, humor.
O’Loughlin organizes his book thematically, categorizing Pope Francis’s tweets according to sixteen themes ranging from the predictable “Prayer,” “Mercy,” and “Creation,” to the less expected “Gossip,” “Sports,” and “The Devil.”
Each chapter includes both sample tweets as well as commentary from a journalist whose full-time job is to be deeply immersed in the daily workings of the church and its leadership. What we get in turn is a fuller appreciation for the significance of this social-media ministry and a model, from the Bishop of Rome himself, of how to engage what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once called “the digital continent” into which we must venture in order to proclaim the Gospel.
O’Loughlin’s book is an interesting read, even for those who may not be active on Twitter. However, it strikes me as required reading for those who do venture into this mysterious land of social media with the desire to minister and proclaim the Gospel. We can learn a lot from Pope Francis, even if it’s 140 characters at a time.