Paul Tighe isn’t your typical South by Southwest speaker. He’s not a tech CEO or a famous politician–he’s a Catholic bishop. Not just any Catholic bishop. Tighe is the Adjunct Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture. In layman’s terms, this means that Bishop Tighe runs the Pope’s Twitter account, sharing the pontiff’s thoughts with 10.5 million followers around the world.
It may seem strange for a 2,000-year-old institution that prides itself on its adherence to tradition, but in 2017 it’s essential for the Pope to be active on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and WhatsApp. In an era of declining attendance at many churches, the Vatican can’t afford to ignore social media—it’s where the Pope’s flock meets and hangs out.
“As Church leaders, we had an older generation which saw digital and ‘real life’ as two separate worlds, and digital was for kids,” Tighe said in his onstage appearance. “But the two are existential realities which feed into each other. There’s a crossing between them and an understanding that digital forms the environment in which many people–especially the young–live.”
As a member of the Catholic Church, an institution with a deeply entrenched bureaucracy, it wasn’t easy for Tighe to navigate the world of new media for outreach, public relations, and evangelism.
At SXSW, Tighe repeatedly emphasized the experiences of his 15 nieces and nephews, and how they primarily navigate information through smartphones and tablets.
“The potential they have to express themselves is radically different, and they now get information in very different ways,” Tighe says. “Growing up in Ireland, at 9 p.m. each evening everything stopped. We watched the evening news, and that was our conversation for the following day. Things have changed.”
The bishop adds that the Church uses social media for three different tasks: Delivering Jesus’ message and the idea of God’s love online, interacting with what he calls “negative online environments” to show the Church’s perspective, and to serve their flock of billions online.
“The language of digital is conversation,” Tighe adds. “On one level, digital seemed great because we could put everything online and not rely on broadcasters. However, the only way to get traction was to engage the curious and to be willing to engage with those who are furious with us for some reason. Unless we could take them seriously, they would not take us seriously.”
In his appearance, Tighe repeatedly stressed the Vatican’s long view on technology and using new media platforms. Compared to learning new cultures and new languages to spread the Church’s messages on new continents, he says, acclimating to online media is a piece of cake.
And, essentially, a big part of the Vatican’s digital strategy is reminding its audience that they’re still here, ready to guide and serve. Michael Hertl of the Catholic TV Office Germany gave one example of an innovative social media project: Putting the Easter story on WhatsApp.
The Diocese of Essen, a small German city, worked on a project to send WhatsApp messages on a regular basis to congregants to remind them of the holiday in the weeks leading up to Easter.
“When you get a WhatsApp message that Peter just denied Jesus when you are in the grocery store, what does that do for you?,” Hertl asks. “In that moment, you are part of an experience that people have shared for centuries. You share experiences and friendship, you think about dying, and you think about community. The job of the Church is to remind people that there is more than the day-to-day.”
The Catholic Church has believers in every country in the world and a massive institutional presence to match. In digital terms, this means that while Bishop Tighe’s office manages communications for the Pope himself, there are also a wide array of official and quasi-official Catholic entities with their own digital strategies.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, for instance, has its own social media guidelines. And during Pope Francis’s visit to the United States in 2015, Catholic media companies hired social media agencies to track social metrics and work on engagement strategies. And in a possible nod to the SXSW audience, Tighe said that his Vatican office used The Onion as one of its design inspirations for merging text articles and video on a single website.
But in the end, to the Vatican, the communication methods that matter are decidedly more simple.
“In the Vatican, our biggest communications moment is delivered by smoke,” Tighe notes. “We have 5,000 media companies from around the world coming to watch our chimney, and that’s magic.”