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Jim McDermottMarch 16, 2023
A priest leads the burning of palms outside a church in Manila, Philippines, Feb. 21, 2023, in preparation for Ash Wednesday the next day. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the 40-day penitential season of Lent. (OSV News photo/Lisa Marie David, Reuters)

At some point over the last six months, I started hearing again about Flipboard, a news aggregator that I’ve had on my iPad for ages, and maybe you have, too. The app has been around since 2010, and while it may not have exactly invented the idea of being a one-stop spot for all the news you want to see, it certainly did turn it into a big business. It was Apple’s App of the Year in 2010, and Time named it on of the year’s best inventions (alongside Google’s driverless car, Kickstarter, the iPad and spray-on fabric).

Today, Flipboard has upwards of six million readers a month, almost half of them under 35. More intriguing to me, almost 60 percent of its users—all of whom have the ability to boost content by reposting it—live outside the United States. Obviously, as a tech business the company has its own agenda (a.k.a. algorithm). But still, learning a little more about it got me wondering what kind of vision of the Catholic Church you might find when the audience creating it is from around the world.

Over the last week, I’ve been popping in on the Catholicism feed on Flipboard. At first what I found was a lot of pretty ugly stories. The top articles a week ago were about a queer comedian in Australia who made a joke that had offended Catholics, and how various Catholics, including the archbishop of Sydney, responded. There were also many stories from around the world about child sexual abuse—the Portuguese conference of bishops saying they and only they would decide whether priests who are convicted of abuse are dismissed from the priesthood; an Irish priest who was convicted of abuse but not sent to jail; a new Polish documentary accusing Pope John Paul II of protecting pedophile priests when he was archbishop of Krakow, which was a news item that actually hadn’t even broken in the States yet.

Learning a little more about Flipboard got me wondering what kind of vision of the Catholic Church you might find when the audience creating it is from around the world.

The fact that so many stories from around the world were about abuse was sadly unsurprising, but also pretty brutal to see. It has been 21 years now since The Boston Globe first broke stories of abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston, and yet the cascade of revelations, lawsuits and bankruptcies continues. And stories related to abuse and L.G.B.T. issues in the church would remain persistent topics throughout the week. Even this Monday, the 10th anniversary of Pope Francis’ papacy, while the front page of Flipboard included a story from the Gaurdian about the pope, it also had a story about the soon-to-be-released report on sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

One definite trend that you see on Flipboard is the conflicts that surround the church throughout the world: women asking for a greater voice in the Australian church; sad news of the closing of Mount Alvernia High School in Newton, Mass.; Christians contributing to hatred around the world, written by America’s own Chris Parker.

But over the course of the week the app also presented many other kinds of glimpses into the church. First and foremost, there were stories of the global church that you don’t often hear about in the United States, other than perhaps from our own Kevin Clarke and his team of international correspondents. There was the story of Filipino Catholics protesting the recent murder of a governor and five others in the Visayas region; the staff of the Diocese of Makurdi in Nigeria who had to evacuate their offices in the wake of anti-Christian violence sweeping the area following national elections; Argentinians wishing that Pope Francis would come visit them.

There were also human interest stories from around the world: a Derry priest who discovered a shipwreck; a sick young woman whose example bore witness to God’s love; the Sisters of Mercy’s contributions to New Orleans.

After a week of using Flipboard for this story, I’m honestly sold on its value for Catholics.

I found some great pieces to chew on, too, like Elizabeth Bruenig’s beautiful piece about Lent in The Atlantic or a recent Religion News Service piece about J. Edgar Hoover’s commitment to Christian nationalism or our own Molly Cahill’s recent article on trying to become more like the prodigal son. (Also, many, many think pieces from around the world on Pope Francis’ 10 years in office.)

After a week of using Flipboard for this story, I’m honestly sold on its value for Catholics. On any given day, it gives you a snapshot of the church in the world, both at the macro level and the micro. In a sense the church gets smaller using Flipboard but in the best way. I am made aware of the struggles and witness of Catholics all around the world in a way that no one publication or country’s publications could ever accomplish.

Keeping in mind that Flipboard has its own algorithms at work (and also so do each of us reading, including myself), you nevertheless begin to see broader patterns, too. Much as is the case in the States, the church in the world seems to struggle any time it has to deal with issues of sex and gender. Our language and practices around attraction, intimacy and bodies, perhaps even the physical world seem to create a lot of conflict around the world and sometimes pain. Maybe we would argue that being Catholic often means being countercultural. Still, it’s noticeable just how persistent and strife-ridden these issues are.

But there are other patterns here, too, more subtle but still present. Most especially, reading Flipboard you learn of Catholics putting themselves on the line for others, working for justice, trying to make things better. Sometimes their actions are big and dramatic, front page news, like the Filipino Catholics condemning violence. But quieter moves from Catholics resonate with people as well, like the Irish bishops’ recent decision to give a third of their grounds back to nature to create more space for pollinating bees and biodiversity. Among a hundred big stories about Pope Francis this week, their decision clearly grabbed the attention of Flipboard’s readers as well.

Maybe there is a lesson to be taken here, too, about where the church’s message actually reaches people and what we should be concentrating on.

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