On Thursday, January 24, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated World Communications Day by writing a message that encouraged believers to use social networks such as Facebook or Twitter to share the gospel and try to be a positive influence on others.
The message was published on the Vatican's official website.
According to a Vatican press release, "Pope Benedict’s message for World Communications Day 2013 was released at a press conference in the Vatican on Thursday, the feast day of St Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists and writers. The message focuses on the importance of social networking sites as 'portals of truth and faith', and 'new spaces for [evangelism]'."
The Pope began by discussing how important social media has become to many people and how Christians could use social media to discuss the Bible with people they communicate with on the Web.
"The development of social networks calls for commitment," Benedict said. "[P]eople are engaged in building relationships and making friends, in looking for answers to their questions and being entertained, but also in finding intellectual stimulation and sharing knowledge and know-how.
"The networks are increasingly becoming part of the very fabric of society, inasmuch as they bring people together on the basis of these fundamental needs. Social networks are thus nourished by aspirations rooted in the human heart."
The Pope stressed the importance of engaging in reasonable discussions and respecting the beliefs of others.
"Dialogue and debate can...flourish and grow when we converse with and take seriously people whose ideas are different from our own," Benedict said.
The Pope feels that many social media users may not be exposed to Christianity unless believers interact with them.
"The challenge facing social networks is how to be truly inclusive: thus they will benefit from the full participation of believers who desire to share the message of Jesus and the values of human dignity which his teaching promotes," Benedict said.
"Believers are increasingly aware that, unless the Good News is made known also in the digital world, it may be absent in the experience of many people for whom this existential space is important. The digital environment is not a parallel or purely virtual world, but is part of the daily experience of many people, especially the young."
The Pope's message helped raise awareness of the fact that most Americans are unaware of how Catholics are using social media.
According to Jordyn Taylor of the New York Observer, "Evidently, Benedict was not speaking Facebook’s name in vain. According to a 2012 study by U.S. bishops, 53 percent of Americans were unaware that the Catholic Church had any sort of online presence—a fact stated by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the Vatican’s communications office.
"And, as Archbishop Celli also pointed out, because much of today’s youth look to social media as their primary source of information, it will be especially important for the Church to take up residence online.
"So far, Benedict is setting a strong example. In case you’ve never had the pleasure of following @Pontifex on Twitter, know that so far, Benedict’s Twitter presence has been crazily popular. He’s only tweeted 26 times since December, but he’s already gathered 2.5 million followers."
It will be interesting to see how Catholics and Christians from all walks of life respond to the Pope's challenge.
Protestants have already embraced social media and even created Christian-oriented social networks such as ShoutLife or HeavenUp. If Catholics get motivated to share their traditions in a similar way, Christians in general could end up having a much stronger online presence.