On the evening of April 3, Melissa Connolly, a 21-year-old student from Villanova University, found herself atop the Palatine Hill outside the Colosseum in Rome, Italy, just a few steps away from the world’s biggest celebrity. Following the suggestions of the more experienced “paparazzi” around her, she positioned her camera. When the right moment arrived, with her target just 15 feet away—boom!—she got the shot she wanted. She quickly posted her picture of Pope Francis online—not on her personal Facebook page, but on the official Vatican Website, news.va.
Connolly was observing the traditional Good Friday procession of the Way of the Cross as a Vatican social media journalist, in Rome thanks to the Waterhouse Family Institute’s Villanova internship program, which sends students to work in the offices of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. The Council, which has a permanent staff of around two dozen people, is led by Thaddeus Jones, another American (although he graduated from Notre Dame, former Big East rival of the Villanova Wildcats). Villanova sends two interns per semester, part of a bigger contingent of students that work in different parts of the Vatican. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Professor Bryan Crable, who directs the internship. “Students get to experience things the average person will never see, like personal audiences with the Pope, the Sistine Chapel at night, and even the Pauline Chapel, which is never open to the public. Our students were on stage when [Francis’s predecessor] Pope Benedict XVI tweeted for the first time from his tablet.”
Junior Nicole O’Donnell was a social media intern last fall. “It was extraordinary,” she says. That’s partly because Pope Francis has made social media a critical part of getting out his message. While it was Benedict who established news.va, “This Pope has taken it to another level,” says O’Donnell. “He’s doing an extraordinary job preaching an extraordinary message.” For O’Donnell, that message is deeply personal: While in Rome, she was able to arrange for her highly functioning autistic brother, Connor, to get a special blessing from Pope Francis, who has reached out to the disabled in unprecedented fashion.
Villanova’s interns bring a much-needed youthful perspective to the Pope’s social media efforts—a perspective the Pontifical Council encourages. The first thing Melissa Connolly did in Rome was evaluate all of the Vatican’s social media channels and its website. The interns weigh in with suggestions for the Pope’s personal Twitter account (he’s @Pontifex, if you’d like to join his 7.3 million followers). They pushed hard for hashtags, so that the Vatican could better follow conversations spawned by @Pontifex or news.va. They helped create virtual reality tours of the Vatican. The interns even got the Pontifical Council to start a #tbt series on Instagram. But there are limits to the Pope’s outreach. While Francis is quite active on Twitter, he does not have an official Facebook page. “Twitter is more of a platform to voice your thoughts,” says Connolly, “whereas Facebook is a place to keep up with your friends.”
Some interns stay involved with the Vatican long after their stints in Rome. Senior Lauren Dugan is covering the Pope’s visit for Philadelphia’s local Fox affiliate. O’Donnell is writing about and taking pictures of his visit for both the Villanovan newspaper and news.va. There’s an easy way to follow her work, as well as the work of the other interns and, indeed, every piece of communications emanating from the Vatican. Just download the Pope App, which was created shortly before Pope Benedict XVI resigned in February of 2013. You’ll find it near other apps like “Pope Emoji,” which features line drawings of the Pope saying things like “I’m on my way!” as he rides the barrel of an airplane, and “Pope Selfie,” which allows you to take a selfie with the Pope no matter where in the world you are. Neither of those is Vatican-sanctioned. Pope Francis has made many bold leaps into the future, but no one wants to see him make a leap too far.