#WebSummit: Meet the Irishman modernising the Church through social media

Monsignor Paul Tighe is the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture in the Vatican

There's a wide range of discussions, panels and keynotes taking place at Web Summit 2016, here in Lisbon. One of the guests in attendance is Monsignor Paul Tighe, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture in the Vatican. The Irishman has worked in the Vatican for 9 years now and told me about his work in using social media within the church. 

Paul has a particularly interesting job within the Vatican that makes him the perfect candidate to speak at Web Summit. He is tasked with modernising the Church, using social media. We spoke earlier this week at Web Summit, behind the main stage and he told me how he came to this role.

"I began working in Archbishop Martin's communications office, then in public affairs. I received a call out of the blue eight or nine years ago telling me that I was being moved to work in the Vatican's communication's department. I've worked there for the last eight years. I've worked a lot on helping not just the Vatican, but the church globally to look at what was required to transition to digital media."

There was much discussion in the world's media when the Pope's Twitter account, @Pontifex, went live. The account was set up back in February 2012. This caused headlines around the world, with people saying the church is embracing a new way of communication. I asked Paul if it caused much of a stir internally.

"Internally, it was quite a step because we had to start by explaining to people what Twitter was and in some cases, what the internet was. Pope Benedict was the Pope at the time and had this briefing paper. He said very simply 'will this allow me to share short messages of hope, joy and encouragement with people who otherwise might never listen to me?' We said yes and he said 'I don't need to hear anything else, that's it!'"

While Paul acknowledges that there was interest around the world in the Church embracing new technology, he says people shouldn't have actually been that surprised.

"In a sense the church has always tried to engage with people in new ways from the very beginning. We've been around a long time and we've seen a lot of things happen. One of the important things about the Twitter account is that it was a way for the Church to say to Bishops around the world 'you need to be thinking about how you're going to be present in the digital arena, because whether you like it or not, that's where more and more people are going to be getting their ideas and forming their ideas, so let's be part of that conversation'."

The Pope's Twitter account has more than 9 million followers. Paul explained  that every tweet that is posted out has been seen and approved by the Pope. If anyone thought Pope Francis was sitting in the Vatican, tweeting away himself, that’s not the case. I asked Paul, however, about the level of engagement on the account. Does The Pope tweet back?

"This, unfortunately, is a resources issues. We don't have enough people. If we were going to get into a level of engagement beyond posting tweets approved by the Pope, we can't pretend that the Pope is following 35 million people back. What we are trying to say is that there's nothing stopping a Parish community in Dublin or the West of Ireland looking at the Pope's Twitter account. They'll see all sorts of people sending things in and you see them day in and day out' 'I'm worried about my child who is sick, will you pray for them?' The Pope can't respond to that, but there's nothing to stop a Parish community saying 'Here in wherever, we're keeping your child in mind', so that the church becomes interactive and engages. Because the church isn't just the Pope."

Paul and his wider team are constantly looking of ways to use new technologies to listen to and support believers. Obviously, the Twitter account has a big part to play in that, but individual parishes have a role to play too. We know that some churches around the world can live stream their masses for example. This is common for communions and weddings. I asked Paul if he can ever imagine the day where a Facebook Live replaces a traditional Sunday mass.

"I think that's a very good second best, for people who can't be physically present. It's a way of keeping their engagement and that's happening across the world. Equally, however, I don't ever seeing it replacing the value of people coming together in community and sharing the time and space together or being able to receive communion in the fullness of the experience."