The Roman Catholic Church was built on its capacity to communicate with a global audience, so it should come as no surprise that the televized papacy of John Paul II should be followed by Benedict XVI proselytizing on the media platform once known as Web 2.0. The Vatican announced on Friday that the pontiff would have his own YouTube channel. He may not be nearly as charismatic a figure as his predecessor, but Benedict's every move during his travels abroad has received saturation coverage on cable TV, while an ever-multiplying number of homemade videos have been popping up on the Internet from those camcorder-wielding faithful who managed to get close enough to the traveling pope.
Now, a new dedicated Vatican channel on the Google-owned website will feature regular video and audio appearances from the Pope, with webnews coverage and commentary in Italian, English, Spanish and German. Google says it does not plan on turning a direct profit from the venture, which will be advertisement-free. (See "Finding God on YouTube")"It is an evolution that is only natural, which corresponds to the presence of the Church in the world," said Father Federico Lombardi, who serves as both papal spokesman and head of Vatican radio and television services. "Many people want to be able to know better what the Pope thinks and what the Catholic Church proposes for the problems of today. From today it will be easier [to find out]." (See pictures of Benedict's papal style innovations)
Of course, each new media platform carries its own inherent risks in the eyes of the Church. The Pope warned in his message, Friday, which also marked the Church's World Day of Communications, that the new technologies of internet communication could reduce real human contact. "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," he said. Plainly, the pontiff is planning to avoid getting sucked into an addiction to Facebook. (See the top 10 religion stories of 2008.)
The unveiling of a special Vatican channel on You Tube is, in fact, just the latest iteration of the Church's ancient tradition of adapting to those means of communication most effective at bringing its message to the faithful. The medium may change, say Church leaders, but the message remains the same from pre-Rennaisance paintings of the Madonna to the CNN and Al Jazeera cameras perched above St. Peter's piazza, from early use of the printing press to the worldwide reach today of Vatican radio and the website launched by the Holy See in 1995.
Though rarely ahead of the communication curve, the Vatican is usually not far behind. What is perhaps most baffling to observers, though, is that it can keep up with such trends and technology even while being run by 60 and 70-year-old men who tend to talk among themselves. Perhaps that ability is a sign that the institution has a unique kind of historical intelligence otherwise, it may simply be one of those very modern miracles.