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  • John Thavis

Updated: Feb 18, 2020

Pope Francis’ love-hate relationship with social media was on display this month.

On Jan. 20, appearing before pilgrims at his weekly blessing, he tapped a tablet to launch a “Click to Pray” app that allows people to share prayer intentions and (virtually) pray with each other. The pope called social networks “a resource of our time” that gives people a way to “share values and projects.”

But a few days later, the 82-year-old pope sounded a different tune in his annual message for World Communications Day. He said social media too often tend to divide people and encourage a worrisome trend toward narcissism:

Moreover, in the social web identity is too often based on opposition to the other, the person outside the group: we define ourselves starting with what divides us rather than with what unites us, giving rise to suspicion and to the venting of every kind of prejudice (ethnic, sexual, religious and other). This tendency encourages groups that exclude diversity, that even in the digital environment nourish unbridled individualism which sometimes ends up fomenting spirals of hatred. In this way, what ought to be a window on the world becomes a showcase for exhibiting personal narcissism.

It's the Catch-22 that many people, the famous and not-so-famous, experience when using social media: they see the negative effects of social networking, but in this day and age they feel obliged to have a presence on digital platforms.

To understand why the pope can’t even consider withdrawing from social media, read this story by Catholic News Service. It outlines the incredible digital reach enjoyed by Pope Francis:

According to Twipu, a site that tracks Twitter statistics, each of Pope Francis' tweets generates an average of 935 replies, 7,998 retweets and 36,750 likes.

In an early December article, the Twiplomacy website listed Pope Francis as No. 4 on the list of the "most followed world leaders on Instagram." He came behind Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and U.S. President Donald Trump.

More importantly from the point of view of his Communications Day focus on community, Pope Francis is also in fourth place on world leaders' Instagram interactions. Each photo or video posted by the Vatican, the site said, garners an average of 198,432 interactions.

Pope Francis is on Instagram here:

You'll find him on Twitter @Pontifex.

A leading Vatican official says opposition to Pope Francis’ outreach to divorced and remarried Catholics comes from a minority that is tied to a vision of the church that “never existed.”

Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life, made the comments in an interview published in the British magazine The Tablet Jan. 25. It offers an interesting look at how the debate over Communion for divorced Catholics is seen inside the pope’s own “cabinet” of Vatican advisors.

Based on information received from bishops and lay groups involved in marriage and family life around the world, Bishop Farrell said, the pope’s pastoral initiative has been “overwhelmingly well received.”

“There are some elements in the United States, on the continent of Africa, and some here in Europe – but not very strong – where they have a vision of going back to a Church that I believe never existed,” he says. “Deep down this is an ideological conflict.”

Following two sessions of the Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis in his 2016 document “Amoris Laetitia” opened the door to reception of Communion by Catholics who have divorced and civilly remarried, prompting public criticism by a handful of cardinals and rumblings among the Catholic hierarchy.

Cardinal Farrell’s office is charged in part with implementing “Amoris Laetitia.” In the interview, he made the rather surprising observation that his own Vatican department could be run by an non-ordained man or woman – reflecting, he said, the pope’s efforts to involve lay people more deeply in leadership roles in the church.

The moderator of the Vatican’s upcoming summit on sex abuse has underlined several crucial themes for the four-day meeting, including the need for greater accountability and transparency by bishops.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the former Vatican spokesman tapped by Pope Francis to chair the Feb. 21-24 summit, said past cover-ups by church officials have been the cause of “evil and tragedy.”

He made the comments in an article published in late January by “La Civiltà Cattolica,” a Jesuit journal that reflects Vatican thinking.

Father Lombardi said it was not enough for bishops to put procedures in place and deal quietly with sexual abuse cases. They need to communicate openly and quickly with everyone involved, he said.

“Sincerity and honesty in communications, the commitment to facilitate access to information, and to welcome outside help to improve the protection of minors are obviously behaviors that go in the opposite direction to the tendency to hide and cover up,” he said.

“This was one of the causes of so much evil and tragedy in the past,” he said.

Father Lombardi said the church’s approach to abuse by clerics must include a change in outlook and attitude, and not only new procedures to deal with accused priests. In that regard, his article praised a document published by the bishops of Canada in 2018, titled “Protecting Minors from Sexual Abuse.”

Meanwhile, another organizer of the summit, Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, said one expected outcome of the meeting will be establishment of a task force with teams of child protection experts working on every continent.

It would appear that the task force’s purpose will be to make sure that there is practical follow-up to the summit, especially in places where there has been reluctance to face the problem.

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