BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Although Pope Francis has succeeded in rebranding the public profile of the Church, according to a Vatican PR aide, his positive tone isn’t always reflected when Catholics themselves take to the use of social media.
On the contrary, to hear Father Thomas Rosica tell it, sometimes Catholic conversation on-line is more “culture of death” than “culture of life.”
“Many of my non-Christian and non-believing friends have remarked to me that we ‘Catholics’ have turned the Internet into a cesspool of hatred, venom and vitriol, all in the name of defending the faith!” he said.
“The character assassination on the Internet by those claiming to be Catholic and Christian has turned it into a graveyard of corpses strewn all around,” said Rosica, who assists the Vatican Press Office with English-speaking media, on May 11 as he delivered the keynote address at the Brooklyn Diocese’s observance of World Communications Day.
“Often times the obsessed, scrupulous, self-appointed, nostalgia-hankering virtual guardians of faith or of liturgical practices are very disturbed, broken and angry individuals, who never found a platform or pulpit in real life and so resort to the Internet and become trolling pontiffs and holy executioners!” Rosica said.
“In reality they are deeply troubled, sad and angry people,” he said. “We must pray for them, for their healing and conversion!”
Both Rosica and his “Salt and Light TV” Catholic network in Canada have occasionally been targeted for on-line criticism, especially from conservative and pro-life Catholic organizations.
The Internet, Rosica said, “can be an international weapon of mass destruction, crossing time zones, borders and space.” He also described it as “an immense battleground that needs many field hospitals set up to bind wounds and reconcile warring parties.”
“If we judged our identity based on certain ‘Catholic’ websites and blogs, we would be known as the people who are against everyone and everything!” he said. ” If anything, we should be known as the people who are for something, something positive that can transform lives and engage and impact the culture.”
The good news, according to Rosica, is that in the broader media universe, Pope Francis has had exactly that effect.
“Prior to Pope Francis, when many people on the street were asked: ‘What is the Catholic Church all about? What does the pope stand for?’ The response would often be, ‘Catholics, well they are against abortion, gay marriage and birth control’,” Rosica said.
“They are known for the sex abuse crisis that has terribly marred and weakened their moral authority and credibility,’” he said.
“Today I dare say that the response is somewhat different,” Rosica said.
“What do they say about us now? What do they say about the pope? People are speaking about our leader who is unafraid to confront the sins and evils that have marred us,” he continued.
“We have a pope who is concerned about the environment, about mercy, compassion and love, and a deep passion, care and concern for the poor and for displaced peoples roaming the face of this earth,” he added. “Pope Francis has won over a great part of the media.”
The pontiff “has changed the image of the church so much that prestigious graduate schools of business and management are now using him as a case study in rebranding,” the priest added.
While the pope has caused more people to take notice, that doesn’t mean that everyone agrees or follows the message he preaches, Rosica said.
He explained that Pope Francis has opened up a dialogue with the world, and the Catholic media is a big part of showcasing the work of the Catholic Church.
He referred to Francis’ message for World Communications Day to explain how church media should go about its work.
“Our primary task is to uphold the truth with love,” he said.
That means that Catholic media should “listen,” rather than merely “hear,” as it engages in dialogue.
It also means that church media should communicate with everyone, without exception.
It further means that “Christians ought to be a constant encouragement to communion and, even in those cases where they must firmly condemn evil, they should never try to rupture relationships and communication.”
Rosica further added that “political and diplomatic language would do well to be inspired by mercy, which never loses hope.”
“May our way of communicating help to overcome the mind-set that neatly separates sinners from the righteous,” he said. “We can and we must judge situations of sin – such as violence, corruption and exploitation – but we may not judge individuals, since only God can see into the depths of their hearts.”
Rosica said the work of the Catholic media is to build bridges that encourage encounter and inclusion and to avoid misunderstandings that add to wounds and vengeance.
“The Church must shine with the light that lives within itself, it must go out and encounter human beings who — even though they believe that they do not need to hear a message of salvation — often find themselves afraid and wounded by life,” he said.
“The light of Christ reflected in the church must not become the privilege of only a few elect who float enclosed within a safe harbor or ghetto network of communications for the elite, the clean, the perfect and the saved.”
Sponsored by the DeSales Media Group, the event in downtown Brooklyn drew about 250 people. Rosica was presented with the Brooklyn Diocese’s St. Francis DeSales Distinguished Communicator Award by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.
(Crux staff contributed to this report.)