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By Russell Pollitt SJ

Earlier this week Pope Francis met with Marc Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of the world’s biggest social media network, Facebook. The Pope, the Vatican reported, spoke to Zuckerberg about how communications technologies can be used to “alleviate poverty, encourage the culture of encounter and bring a message of hope, especially to the most disadvantaged.”

 “It was a meeting we’ll never forget. You can feel his warmth and kindness, and how deeply he cares about helping people,” the Facebook CEO wrote on – you got it – Facebook!

Zuckerberg said he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, told the Pontiff “how much we admire his message of mercy and tenderness, and how he’s found new ways to communicate with people of every faith around the world.”

Although Francis does not own a cell phone or use a computer, he clearly knows and sees the value of the digital age; especially in terms of how technology can serve in promoting Gospel values, human dignity and evangelisation. Francis has called the internet “something truly good, a gift from God”.

The Pope is not on Facebook but he is on Twitter. The Pope has 20 million followers over the nine language accounts he tweets from. This does not count his Instagram account followers or the monthly YouTube videos he does.

The meeting with Zuckerberg and his wife is the fourth meeting with techies that Francis has had this year. Earlier this year he met with the chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, Apple CEO, Tim Cook and co-founder and CEO of Instagram, Kevin Systrom.

The question of how we use technologies better for the purpose of encounter, hope and reaching out to the disadvantaged is one that we must continually grapple with. Sometimes the Church has been rather suspicious of new technologies and resistant to using them. Sometimes we just don’t know how to use them. This is where most of our youth will be found: online.

Websites have been setup but often the initial enthusiasm wanes resulting in stagnated, out-dated sites. They affirm the perception that the Church is outdated. Notice how many parish and other Church websites in South Africa haven’t been updated for a long time? If we are serious about a culture of encounter, offering a message of hope and reaching out, then we need to be more serious about our online presence. 

There is another side to social media. Earlier this year the CEO of Salt + Light Media Foundation, Fr. Thomas Rosica CSB, warned that engagement on social media networks can lead more to a “culture of death” than a “culture of life conversation”. He said that some Catholics and Christians “have turned the internet into a cesspool of hatred, venom and vitriol, all in the name of defending the faith!”

Many websites in South Africa, including the Catholic weekly, The Southern Cross, have had to shut down their comments section precisely because of the bad language, ad hominem attacks and vitriol that keyboard warriors bash out.

The world of technology puts tremendous power (for good) at our finger-tips. We need to use it more strategically and, when using it, remember that our Christian lives and the way we interact with others extends into our online engagement.     

 Follow Russell Pollitt on twitter @rpollittsj

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