Vatican Holds Brief, Yet Intense, Blogger Event

Father Lombardi Encourages Open and Frank Dialogue on Faith

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, MAY 5, 2011 ( Although it lasted little more than four hours including a short break, the Vatican’s bloggers’ meeting covered plenty of ground and was very much welcomed by most of those who participated. Above all, it provided a chance for Catholic bloggers to meet each other in person for the first time, make contacts and exchange ideas.

Opening the gathering of around 150 bloggers from around the world May 2, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli stressed that the meeting was aimed at reaching a «broader and deeper understanding» between blog writers and the Vatican. He reiterated the invitation of Benedict XVI, that there should be a «respectful» dialogue and a respect for the truth while remaining aware that «we bring to the heart the committed and passionate adherence to Christ the Lord.»

In his opening remarks, Richard Rouse, an official at the Pontifical Council for Culture and chief organizer of the event, said the meeting was aimed at giving the chance for bloggers «to express your needs, your culture, your hopes, aspirations and fears, in order that the Church may, drawing on the riches of Tradition, embrace you, walk with you, and continue learning to speak in terms and ways you can understand.»

Vatican correspondent Andres Beltramo, who writes a blog called «Sacro & Profano,» said he sees blogging as means to engage in «freer communication» and to give «proper coverage» to what the Church says in the face of so much media misrepresentation. He urged bloggers «not to be afraid of engaging in debate, emphasizing issues to better understand them, and providing relevant information.»

Elizabeth Scalia, author of the «The Anchoress» blog, noted that charity can sometimes be the biggest challenge facing international media. The Internet gives blog writers great freedom, she said, but also presents a temptation for egos — «a true battleground for the spirit.» She spoke of the danger of «walling in our hearts and minds,» which can diminish charity, and said that Catholic bloggers should have «no business fostering factions among ourselves.»

She looked to Benedict XVI as an example to follow, «a surprising man who is not afraid of any ideas, will talk about anything, explore any idea,» she said. Scalia closed by stressing that all Catholics, despite different backgrounds, education and perspectives, are called to the oneness desired by Christ. «Let’s pray that that same oneness be our defining characteristic,» she said.

Father Roderick Vonhögen, founder of Star Quest Production Network (SQPN) that specializes in using audio and video to promote the teachings of the Church, emphasized the potentially enormous outreach of digital media offers. He said he sees his work as «being a shepherd of those without a shepherd, not those already with one.»

Jesus, he recalled, gave the command to go and be fishers of men, «but to fish you need to have good bait,» Father Vonhögen said. For this reason, he said he tries to find a common language, or common points of interest, with audiences before he starts sharing his faith. The aim, he added, is also not only «to bring others into our nets, but to the light,» and only when a friendship has been created is there a connection, and it’s possible to «introduce the faith.»

Slow blogging

French blogger Francois Jeanne-Beylot said the Vatican’s initiative made him feel «proud to be a Catholic» and advocated more initiatives such as this one to increase collaboration between the Church and bloggers.

Analyzing the nature of blogs, he observed that they have their own built-in quality mechanism: «If people want to read my blog, I have to write things that aren’t too stupid and so have to apply myself and make sense,» he said. «This is also positive, it encourages us to be good people and write sensible things.»

Like Father Vonhögen, he stressed bloggers should be trying to reach out to non-Catholics in union with Christ, and need to make their voice heard among them. «If Christ came back today,» he added, «he wouldn’t be on a boat but on Twitter or on a blog.» The Church, in the meantime, could be making use of the Internet more and maximizing its full potential, he said.

During the Q&A session, a questioner asked if Twitter and Facebook are making information exchange too fast on the Internet, possibly making blogs redundant. Moderator of the session Rocco Palmo, author of «Whispers in the Loggia» blog, said that there is an argument for a «slow blogging movement» rather like slow food as opposed to fast food. «Each time we’re trying to chase the curve, we’re not going to bring the best contribution to ourselves,» he said.

Father Vonhögen said that Twitter can «lead to deeper communication,» but noted that the speed of social media is now so fast that all the messages «won’t necessarily lead to a wider audience.» The task of Catholic communicators, he said, «is to offer meadows for where the sheep can rest, take it in and enter the mystery.»

Despite the speed of the Internet, Jeanne-Beylot said some blogs can be highly visible and influential, and referred in particular to a French blogger who is quoted more than the country’s official Church spokesperson. 

The institutional Church had its say in the second part of the meeting — a session aimed at increasing awareness and familiarity of the Vatican in the blogosphere. Its moderator, social communications professor (and also blogger) Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, stressed that above all the Vatican wants to listen to what bloggers have to say, and noted the value of blogs in sharing messages within the context of community. «Every blog is like a novel,» he observed, «but there’s no end, it continues on and on, and this makes it even more interesting.» The Church, he said, is encouraging a Christian presence on the Web in order to «stimulate dialogue between faith and emerging cultures.»

Communication is service

Next to speak was Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi. Although he confessed to not being an avid reader of blogs, he noted «a very intense atmosphere of personal communication» when he entered the meeting hall, which was «a nice surprise» for him.

«We want to open up an open and frank dialogue based on respect to all those who want to communicate,» Father Lombardi said, and stressed how much the Vatican, with the encouragement of the Holy Father, has utilized both old and new media technology to spread the Church’s message. As a current example, he confirmed that the Pope will soon be speaking to astronauts in space, «if technology allows.»

He then made two more personal points: first, he stressed that bloggers are «very important» for the Church and society. He underlined the faithful have a leading role in forging opinions and this leads to the development of the Church’s ideas in relation to today’s world. «The reality and presence of blogs can participate in this new dimension,» he said.

Father Lombardi also stressed the importance of interactivity, and that the «in depth reflection we can find on blogs is something that can help us to develop a dialogue and interactivity, considering that the Church has to communicate with the faithful.» He also called on bloggers to offer the Church advice and to help it «interpret and understand» what is in the blogosphere. The Vatican spokesman said «an expert blogger» already regularly helps him with this task.

A second point Father Lombardi made concerned his own contribution. He said that alongside other Vatican press and media sources, his task is to present messages in a clear way «so you can fairly develop your comments and reflections.» He added that he was «very grateful» for the help of bloggers in explaining the Pope’s position clearly, for instance the controversy last year over AIDS and condoms.

Addressing the problems of the ego and b
logging, mentioned in the first session, Father Lombardi stressed that for him, the key word in communications should be «service.»

«I am a total enemy of the ego,» he said, «and feel I am at the service of other people full time, so I believe I have to provide a service to the person to whom I’m trying to communicate a message because I have something very important to say to him.» Dialogue and mutual respect is essential, he said. «This is why I propose this new dynamic to our and your work as bloggers,» he added. «We should reflect on the words ‘ego’ and ‘service’ for other people.»

Also addressing the second session was Father Lucio Ruiz, an Argentine priest who runs the Vatican Web site. Father Ruiz said the Web site was very expensive to maintain and is undergoing a renovation of its 5,000 pages. He also revealed that the Web site receives many cyber attacks; once hackers made two million attacks on the site at once and technicians had to work all night to repair it. «We have to cooperate with a lot of law enforcement agencies everyday,» he said.

Asked whether the Vatican could put news up on the site more quickly, Father Ruiz explained some of the reasons for delays. He said there is a «time lag between when Pope said something and when a statement is posted,» and that when the Pope makes a «slight variation to a statement he has been preaching, the whole coherence has to be adjusted to the point at which it has become final and can no longer be edited.»

Of course, he added, «we have to engage and involve the whole [Vatican] structure and to do this quickly, but the technical timelag cannot be avoided. We also have to keep certain type of formality for the entire pastoral action throughout the world.»

In closing, Thaddeus Jones, an official at the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, revealed details of a new Web portal that will bring all the Vatican’s media offices under one virtual roof. Showing a preview of the portal, which will be found under the domain name, Jones said its aim was «to draw all people into the whole world of Vatican media.» The future content promises to be both «social and dynamic.»

A further useful project of the Council is «,» which aims to be an online database of Catholic media around the world.

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at:

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