Judging by their thrilled tweets in many languages, the first ever Vatican-hosted bloggers' conference yesterday was a great success. Quite what it will lead to nobody seems to know, but the verdict was that building a bridge between Rome and the Catho-blogosphere will bear much future fruit, and that something important has begun.
For many of the 150 from across the world - the list is here -- it was their first time in Rome; and for most, the first time they had met each other. So one of the primary objectives of the meeting -- building links with Rome and with each other -- was handsomely fulfilled. The effect of this, says Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ at Cyberteologia, will be to mobilise resources and energies and greater collaboration among Catholic bloggers.
As became clear from opening remarks by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the Vatican's social communication's office, the purpose of the meeting was not to assert Vatican control over the blogosphere - there will be no guidelines, or norms -- but to "dialogue", listen to concerns, and see what might come of it. Elizabeth Scalia, aka The Anchoress, said participants came away with the sense that "Rome is very serious about building a cohesive, co-operative relationship with the purveyors of Catholic social media".
Rocco Palmo, whose Whispers in the Loggia site is an institution, told the gathering that the 150 invitees represented “many of the finest professional communicators” working for the Catholic Church without charge. The meeting, he said, is recognition of “our contribution to the life of the Church.”
The Vatican representatives agreed: Archbishop Celli praised "the concrete, important and unique role of your presence in the world of communication," while the Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi said Catholic bloggers were "the Church's public opinion".
According to Brazilian blogger Wagner Moura, the meeting was about three things: (1) for the bloggers to reflect on their role at the service of the community rather than themselves; (2) for the Vatican to hear ideas and experiences from those working in the "new media"; (3) to announce the Holy See's new strategy for the internet -- which turned out to be the launch of a new Web 2.0 integrated news site, news.va, to be launched soon.
Behind the first point was the recognition by many of those present that the Catholic blogosphere can be a little self-obsessed and sectarian.
Even while praising the Catholic blogosphere as "a source of Catholic clarity in a very noisy, confused and divided world" -- a questionable assertion, of course -- the Anchoress in her remarks noted: "Catholic clarity, of course, cannot be disseminated without a measure of charity, and charity can sometimes be the biggest challenge we face in new media."
The freedom of the medium, she said, "is both a gift and a terrible temptation to our egos, a force for disorientation and therefore a true battleground for souls."
"Let’s face it," she added, "when the ego is ignited and the passions are galloping, we all too easily ignore our own better angels, and sacrifice charity for the satisfaction of a what we consider to be a well-deserved jab at some poor misguided other. Need I say, I go to confession a lot more frequently since I have been blogging. Bless me father, for I have sinned…it’s that damned editor at Commonweal, again."
Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi SJ agreed that the ego was "a significant but problematic element in the life of bloggers" and suggested using the notion of service as a way of acting against it.
"I try to live my life as a communicator around this word 'service'", he said. "I am a total enemy of the ego. In communication the dimension of service to my interlocutor is key -- in service of the growth of a human community in democracy, respect and dialogue".
As a mission statement for the Catholic blogosphere, that seems spot on: it was what the Vatican Council decree Inter Mirifica anticipated, long before the age of the Internet. But it may take a while to catch on.
The British Catholic blogger Dylan Parry, aka A reluctant Sinnner, reported that Fr Lombardi spoke of reading Catholic blogs after celebrating his daily 7:30am Mass,"so that he can prepare himself for the issues that might crop up that day."
"He told us that he has often been helped a lot by bloggers, especially when trying to gauge the opinions of the faithful ... Bloggers .... can help him in his work by reacting to stories that have been released by the Vatican." (That's good to know. Post by 8am Rome time, and you may well be shaping that Vatican's response to a story.)
Two things seemed to come out of this brief encounter: a recognition of the blogosphere's growing importance to the Church; second, a need for a sense of responsibility that goes along with power.
Bloggers, in other words, no longer need to see themselves as angry adolescents shouting to be heard, but can take their place as professional communicators with a strong sense of mission -- helping to build up the Church's res publica.