31 March 2021, The Tablet

The digital church


The digital church

Guglielmo Marconi, left, inaugurates Vatican Radio in the presence of Pius XI, seated right, in 1931
Photo: Alamy/Marka

 

Francis has observed that we are not living in an era of change, but in a change of era. The digital revolution has changed everything, as the pandemic has made clear. Within the Church exciting new possibilities are there to be seized for walking together and growing in unity

As Covid went viral last spring, our London parish lacked a streaming facility. So the family indulged in a parochial version of channel-­hopping: sampling a range of homilies and sanctuary fixtures. We eventually settled for the Pope’s daily Mass in the Vatican’s Santa Marta chapel. We see his every expression up close; listen to his quiet, early morning voice; we can even hear him breathing.

It’s in real time, but is this “real presence”? As Francis himself warned, live-streaming is OK for the time being “in order to get through the tunnel, not to stay here”. He has stressed the importance of physical presence and touch; just as many have warned of the desensitising effects of life experienced through the screen of a device.

From the late nineteenth century, popes have embraced new technology to rule, or to reach out. Pope Leo XIII exploited mass printing to publish his encyclicals and colour portraits. His successor Pius X employed telephones, encrypted cables, and a mimeograph to hunt Modernist “heretics”. Pius XI asked Marconi to set up Vatican Radio in 1931. During the Second World War Pius XII helped direct a movie about himself, Pastor Angelicus; it was screened widely throughout Italy in an attempt to combat the Communist vote in the post-war elections. John XXIII instigated one of the first of the decrees of Vatican II, Inter Mirifica (“Among the Wonderful”), welcoming all forms of social communication, including television. It was promulgated by Paul VI in December 1963; he was the first, as pope, to fly. Adept at all forms of mass media, John Paul II greeted the internet as a tool for evangelism; Benedict saw email as a boost for friendship.

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