You may have seen the photograph from Associated Press photographer Michael Sohn, highlighting the glow of hundreds of smartphone and tablet screens raised like candles in the night in order to film the debut of Pope Francis at Saint Peter’s Basilica on March 13th. In some venues, this was paired with a contrasting photograph from the crowd at the 2005 conclave, where such technology is noticeably absent. The photographs ably illustrate the way in which media and internet technology have become so ubiquitous that it is startling to notice the differences across only a decade.
We have all probably considered how such technology cuts both ways. Such capabilities can be a blessing for families and friends able to see and converse with one another across isolating distances. But such technology has also unleashed the curse of becoming a Facebook or Twitter zombie, waiting for every and any new posting to flit across a screen, while musing whether to update everyone that you are considering moving to the other side of the room in order to watch the screen more comfortably.
As I watched the conclave unfold, I could not help but contrast it with my experience in 2005. I followed that conclave electronically, too. As a doctoral student at Marquette University, I used the Internet to read the accounts of AP and Reuters writers, as well as those of the Catholic News Service and other Catholic outlets. I spent a significant amount of time eyeballing the coverage, particularly CNN, as I recall, since they had nabbed John L. Allen, Jr. as their key analyst. As a student of ecclesiology, I even videotaped (for those who remember videotape) much of the proceedings, just in case I might want to do future research on how the funeral of John Paul II and the subsequent conclave were covered in the secular media.
This time around, in 2013, I sensed of a more reflective use of internet and social media by the church, having the capacity to draw in Catholics in ways beyond simply satisfying the appetite of news junkies. As before, television and print media coverage (both now accessible online) remained an essential part of observing the process in an informed way. But the use of social media had now become part of the process as updates, interviews and rumor now rippled their way through my Friends List. Along with Allen’s daily profiles of the papabile on the National Catholic Reporter web site, Rocco Palmo’s “Whispers in the Loggia” blog had established itself as a key news source since the previous conclave. The Vatican had put out “The Pope App” in January, tied into its own news services.
I was especially taken with the German branch of the group Youth 2000 setting up an “Adopt a Cardinal” web site, where volunteers were assigned to pray for a specific cardinal. Agreeing to be particularly attentive in prayer for one cardinal (I drew Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras) gave me a more conscious sense of responsibility and involvement in praying for him than I was aware of in my generic and instinctive prayer for all of the cardinals. Spreading around those who registered on the site equally among the cardinals, this amounted to 4803 people praying more observantly for each cardinal, all through the efforts of these young people.
On Wednesday afternoon, I was visiting a public library, conducting some research. I had been watching the live camera feed of the Sistine chimney via the Pope App on my iPhone. I was due to call my department chair at 1 p.m., but I stalled for a few minutes, waiting for what I assumed would be another day-closing appearance of black smoke. I gave up and called my chair, explaining why I was a few minutes late, and we laughed together about the ongoing experience of conclave-mania, as he had just finished speaking with a Tampa television outlet about the process. A few minutes into the conversation, I could hear a colleague burst through the door in the background, announcing white smoke, and we swiftly disengaged, so as to await the arrival of the newly-elected pope. I turned back to my camera feed, and watched the “Habemus Papam” with the woman at the information desk, who happened to be my mother. Later, with the suddenly-silent throng in front of the basilica, I took part in answering the request of the newly-elected Bishop of Rome for a prayer of blessing.
I do not record all of this to vaguely over-romanticize the possibilities of the latest technology, nor to assert that it adds anything that is entirely new to the experience of the church. But it did enable a new sense or awareness of the immediate participation—in prayer and communion—that we experience as the people of God within the Body of Christ. This miniature memoir is simply a brief testimonial, perhaps for future generations, who might find it as difficult to imagine a time when believers did not have an immediate sense of the church’s global intercommunion as my little nieces find it difficult to wrap their minds around the world described in The Little House on the Prairie. There was a time when it was the apostles, bishops, and theologians who undertook writing letters to other church communities throughout the world: today, it has become the habit of all believers, and it is going on continuously.