Synod tiptoes into digital age, but are bishops thinking big enough?

Synod tiptoes into digital age, but are bishops thinking big enough?

Synod tiptoes into digital age, but are bishops thinking big enough?

In this Sept. 10, 2016 file photo, Pope Francis poses for a selfie during a Jubilee audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (Credit: AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, file.)

The Synod on youth is not only the first time the Vatican vastly engages with a young demographic, but is also shows the Church tiptoeing into the the digital world.

ROME – Whatever else one might say about it, the Synod of Bishops on youth and discernment called by Pope Francis and set for October is an ambitious project.

Not only does it aim to show that the Church is open to listening to all young people across the globe, but to do that, it has also employed new technological instruments. While some praise the innovative and groundbreaking endeavor, others raise questions as to how these new technologies will be used, what will be the global reach of the synod and what, if any, real effects it will have.

“Either the synod is the launch of something or it will be the umpteenth wasted opportunity by the Church to pretend to be listening to someone,” said Italian Father Paolo Mulps, 31, who attended the “International Festival of Creativity In Pastoral Management” in Rome March 9-10, which will be presenting its findings to the synod.

Others worry that, however vast the ambitions may be, the possibilities being considered still aren’t sweeping enough.

“[The bishops’] vision of what they are trying to do with technology, is too small,” said Big Data and technology expert, Joshua Tijerina, in a phone interview with Crux.

Bishops participating at the synod, which will take place at the Vatican’s synod hall, will have the opportunity to draw on a sprawling amount of documentation and input, collected over the course of the months leading up to the event.

Among other venues, the voices of young people will be collected during a pre-synodal meeting in Rome March 19-24 involving more than 300 young representatives sent from bishops’ conferences all over the world. But that’s just the beginning, as youth will be weighing in in many other ways, including conferences, festivals, and, perhaps, even Vatican hackathons.

According to Tanya George, an Indian consecrated missionary who works as Asia Director for the Rome-based World Youth Parliament, and who also took part at the International Festival, the real challenge of this synod will be representing the diversity of youth throughout the globe.

“The reality is very complex. Here in Europe, young people think and see a different way and don’t participate in the life of the Church, while in Asia they are very active and there is an energy! How do you put that together?” George told Crux.

The young missionary said that she’s “a little worried” about the Eurocentrism that at times pervades synods, but remains optimistic because young people from all over the world will have a chance to be a part of it.

“I think it will only be a start. A new start,” she said.

The Church tiptoes into the digital age

Historically at the Vatican, there has been a lag not only in terms of adopting new technologies, but also in adapting to change. Famously, for instance, Pope Gregory XVI in the mid-19th century forbade trains and gas lighting in the Papal States, worrying they would promote the spread of liberalism and other modern notions.

“It’s a classic [move] of the Church to not arrive first,” said Italian Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, 77, appointed by the pope in 2013 to run the synodal gatherings of bishops from around the world, in an interview with Crux.

Yet, under the thrust of the media-savvy Pope Francis, the synod is entering boldly into the digital age by debuting new technological strategies.

With the theme “Young People, the Faith and Vocational Discernment,” the synod will use Facebook as a platform to engage with youth. It’s created six private groups on Facebook (in English, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Italian and French), which are open to individuals between the ages of 16-29 and mediated by volunteers from various dioceses.

These groups serve as conversation venues on different topics, marked by corresponding hashtags, which participants can weigh in on freely. Organizers expect that more than 3,000 young people will join each group by the time the synod approaches.

Yet ironically, for most young people today, Facebook is yesterday’s news. While many have a Facebook account, the majority prefer the picture-based social media platform Instagram. According to Father Ariel Beramendi, a young Bolivian priest working for the office established to assist the synod secretariat to manage communications on social networks, there are still advantages to using Facebook.

“It’s a proven social network and you can manually find out if [an account] is fake or not, and especially it can be moderated,” he said in an interview with Crux.

The moderators of the groups will have to manually sort through the information that emerges from the Facebook conversations and compile a unified document to be presented to the bishops during the synod.

This text will be accompanied by another important dataset drawn from the over 150,000 questionnaires regarding morality, faith and life answered by youth all over the world. These surveys will be analyzed though an algorithm by the Toniolo Institute of the Cattolica University in Milan.

For the first time in history, not only is the synod crossing the social media “iron curtain,” but it’s also applying “Big Data” analysis to determine common threads and topics emerging from the questionnaire.

In tech lingo, “Big Data” refers to very large datasets, which would be far too time-consuming for a human to sift through, that can be analyzed by computers to reveal patterns, correlations and connections. Some of the machines best suited to perform this job are Artificial Intelligence or Deep Learning systems.

While there’s no doubt the synod’s use of social media represents “something new,” as Baldisserri said, there are still questions about untapped potential.

Tijerina, the Big Data expert, is the CEO of the digital agency Him&Her and the Co-founder and CEO of the Halcyon Movement, a nonprofit organization aimed at creating morally and ethically based content for media.

While Facebook offers enormous possibilities, according to the expert, it’s also “problematic,” because its algorithm presents users only with content that they “like,” making it very hard to encounter views that are not in line with one’s own.

This phenomenon is called the “filter bubble,” where depending on user preferences and reactions content is eliminated or introduced.

Another issue is that the data in Facebook groups is sifted and put together by individuals, who will inevitably apply their own biases, instead of using high-performing machines.

With such a model, “it would be very difficult to get a perspective that wasn’t skewed,” Tijerina said in a phone interview with Crux. “I think the very important thing is to be able to use AI and Big Data in order to sift through a ton of this different stuff, and figure out what people are really saying,” he said.

“Here’s social media, the internet, the network or whatever digital component, where you’re connecting with millions and millions of people, the question is not ‘How do I get information from those people,’ but ‘How do I change those people’s world view?’ ‘How do I reach these people with a message that’s important?’ ‘How do I register a return on investment to actually show conversion?’” Tijerina said.

Big Data can be a helpful ally, he said, but once again the Church is a few steps behind the competition.

“Big data is not about finding answers, but about creating change,” the media expert said.

The questionnaire young people compiled all over the world is an example of “answer searching,” and is only a small part of the picture compared to Big Data’s potential. For example, Tijerina has been working on a project focused on vocations, which through surveys and personality tests on clergy can create a profile used to find young men on social media who would be interested in the priesthood. From that point, he said, dioceses and archdioceses can create outreach programs aimed at drawing these individuals to the Church.

“The reality is that as the Church is tiptoeing into AI, I am afraid that it would be missing the boat if it just asks questions,” Tijerina said.

According to Beramendi, if the Church will try and delve deeper into Big Data it would have to be “a decision at a political level,” but “making the step in the Big Data world, seems to me like a possible step.”

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