Earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI entered into the world of Twitter by registering for an account as @Pontifex. As of today, His Holiness already has 600,000 followers, the majority of whom are English speaking. At this point the Pope has not posted a 'tweet.' So, I along with his other 600,000+ followers, await the first of what we hope to be words of encouragement and wisdom in helping us live the Good News and live a life of Christian Catholic faith.
I have been posting on twitter now for over a year as @bishopcoyne. During that time I have posted 7232 tweets. At 365 days that is about 20 tweets a day (On second thought, I must have been on Twitter for more than a year. This is no way I post 20 times a day. That would be obsessive and unbalanced, something of which I can only be accused of when it comes to following American football). I post almost everyday except Saturdays, usually 5-10 posts on FaceBook and Twitter about the Scriptures and/or saint of the day. I try and treat it like I would a homily at daily Mass - to the point and short. I have also recently added a quote from some famous person or author who was born on that day that has some wisdom for life or faith. All this takes about 45 minutes to an hour each morning but it is all done in connection with my Morning Prayer and my personal prayer and reflection on the readings and liturgical texts of the day so it is not a burden but a good thing.
In addition, I have "live-tweeted" USCCB meetings, the Jennings County Fair, the Indy 500 twice, Super Bowl Media Day and the Super Bowl itself. One of the surreal moments for me was when I was live-tweeting the Jennings County Fair and people were following my tweets while following me at the Fair. By the way, the Jennings County Fair was my first experience of a deep fried twinkie. With Hostess Baking Company going out of business, it will now be my last. Thank God.
Anyway, far be it for me to offer any advice to the Holy Father as how best to use Twitter (or any other item for that matter). That is way above my pay grade as they say so I will practice the virtue of prudence and not even go there. In addition, I believe it is up to each to find their own "voice" for communicating through digital media and much of what I have learned is particular to me and what I want to accomplish by being present on the 'net. But I do have a few general observations that I would like to share with others in ministry who may be thinking of giving digital media a try. Just a few things that I have gleaned over time ...
First, the digital culture is for the most part a lawless society. Aside from some things that are prohibited by local, national, and international law (child pornography, some drug trafficking, money laundering, etc.), you can do and say pretty much what you want to in the digital culture. There are not a lot of rules. So that means you get to set your rules. You can determine how you will post, when you will post, and where you will post. As long as you let people know the rules up front, you can do what you want. You can determine how interactive and dialogical you want to be or not be. If you set up a blog where you will post what you want to post, you can set it up to allow comments or not allow comments. You can answer emails sent to you or not answer them. If you use Twitter and you don't like what someone is saying to you, you can block them. Now that doesn't mean that people can't "retweet" something you said and say nasty things (something no one has ever done to me ... really .... honest ...) but people can tell when a retweet is unedited or when it is altered by the way it appears. But my point is you can set the rules. If someone complains they don't like your rules, maybe you change the rules maybe you don't. It's up to you.
My second thought is particular to my understanding of why I as a bishop and a Christian use digital media - I do so to spread the Good News. I believe that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that all who might believe in Him might have eternal life and that the fullness of that offer is found within the teaching and substance of the Catholic Church. My use of digital media like blog posts, podcasts, FaceBook, Twitter, and texting serves to spread that message. Having that as my starting point frames what I do and what I post. Now spreading the Good News also involves crafting a message that will be received by others. St. Augustine once wrote that the process of spreading the truth of the Christian faith involves the necessity of doing so as "to teach, to please, and to persuade." As "to please" he means to communicate in such a way as to keep the listener's interest. One must use rhetoric, humor, stories, and all other elements of communications as a means to "teach" so as to "persuade." Are there times when the things I post are not directly connected to an obvious Christian message? Yes, but I do so to attract the casual viewer and to retain the normal follower, not as an end in itself.
Now this leads to my third point. Post for a reason, not just to increase the number of one's followers or for empty self-promotion. There is nothing more vapid than someone who just simply "shouts out" what they are doing or someone who just posts funny cat videos. Tweets like "Hey, just celebrated an awesome Mass at St. Dymphna's. Folks really liked what I had to say in my homily" or "Just bought a triple pumpkin lattecino at Bankrupts Coffee. Cost me $6.25! What's that about?" do nothing to further the spreading of the Good News and make one look ridiculous. And while videos like "Hey, Charlie the cat bit my finger!" might have some comic value, they are best left for others to share, not ministers who have a serious message to communicate. Now I know I am walking a fine line here as one who has done live-tweet events but those are few and far between and not part of what I normally do. I am not saying that a bishop or priest can't just have fun at times in the digital media but it should be the exception not the rule.
And now my final point: be yourself. If you are going to have a personal Twitter account or a FaceBook page that is listed as yours, make it yours. Don't have others post for you. Don't just post aphorisms, quotes from Scripture, Church teaching or the lives of the saints. While they are good to read and remember, as posts in themselves they do nothing to connect us as persons to our brothers and sisters. People want to know what we really think and what we really believe. We speak best about the Incarnation, God made man in Jesus Christ, when we make that message incarnate in ourselves. This means we need to be vulnerable to others - as He was, we need to be present to others - as He was, we need to be authentic in our dealings with others - as He was, and we need to be passionate about what we know to be the Truth - as He was. If we can do so by our personal presence in the digital culture, then that is where we need to be.