Can You Poke the Pope on Facebook?

You can't officially friend him or forward photos of your most recent night out, but, as of Thursday, the Vatican says you can meet the pope himself on Facebook.

Launched to coincide with the Vatican's World Communications Day Sunday, the pope's new Facebook application, Pope2You, lets users send "virtual postcards" with photos and messages from Pope Benedict XVI to Facebook friends. Users can also listen to the pope's speeches through the new application.

The Vatican also launched a Pope2You Web site and an application for the iPhone and iPod Touch that gives users audio and video news of the pope's travels and speeches.

In a message posted on the new Web site, the pope said the theme for this year's World Communications Day is "New Technologies, New Relationships: Promoting a Culture of Respect, Dialogue and Friendship."

"In this year's message, I am conscious of those who constitute the so-called digital generation and I would like to share with them, in particular, some ideas concerning the extraordinary potential of the new technologies, if they are used to promote human understanding and solidarity.

"These technologies are truly a gift to humanity and we must endeavor to ensure that the benefits they offer are put at the service of all human individuals and communities, especially those who are most disadvantaged and vulnerable," he said.

Pope's New Site Is Latest Addition to Universe of Faith-Based Sites

Despite the Vatican's embrace of new technologies, the pope also issued a small caution.

"It would be sad if our desire to sustain and develop online friendships were to be at the cost of our availability to engage with our families, our neighbors and those we meet in the daily reality of our places of work, education and recreation," he said. "If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive, it may, in fact, function to isolate individuals from real social interaction while also disrupting the patterns of rest, silence and reflection that are necessary for healthy human development."

Earlier this year, the pope launched his own YouTube channel.

But the pope's latest foray into Facebook is just the latest addition to an ever-expanding universe of faith-based Web sites that are changing the way people worship.

"Religion in general, but Christianity, specifically, has always embraced technology," said Michael Kress, a managing editor at Beliefnet.com, one of the largest multifaith online resources. It has always been the case "to use the latest technology to deepen your faith, to share your faith," he said.

For the past few years, sites like Beliefnet, MyJewishLearning, Muslimspace and, yes, even FaithBook, have given people opportunities to learn about new faiths, deepen their devotion and forge religious communities not limited by geography.

Now, as the Internet continues to give worshippers unprecedented power to direct their own spiritual journeys, religious leaders have joined the social-networking stampede, too, and have started to change the ways they guide their congregations.

"I think we're just beginning to see [social networking] change the world and change faith," Kress said. There's "a huge amount of individual choice and individual decision-making that wasn't there a generation or so before. That aligns perfectly with the social-media phenomenon."

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