VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI invited Christians to join online social networks in order to spread the Gospel through digital media and discover “an entirely new world of potential friendships”.

At the same time, the pope warned of the limits and the dangers of digital communication, including the risks of constructing a false online image and of replacing direct human contact with virtual relationships.

“Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others, provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world,” the pope said in his message for the 2011 celebration of World Communications Day.

“In the search for sharing, for ‘friends’, there is the challenge to be authentic and faithful, and not give in to the illusion of constructing an artificial public profile for oneself,” he said.

The theme of this year’s World Communications Day to be celebrated on Jun 5 is “Truth, proclamation and authenticity of life in the digital age”. The pope in his message, acknowledged that the Internet has fundamentally changed the way people communicate today.
“This means of spreading information and knowledge is giving birth to a new way of learning and thinking, with unprecedented opportunities for establishing relationships and building fellowship,” he said.

In the digital world, he said, information is increasingly transmitted through social networks as a form of sharing between persons. He said this dynamic has favoured dialogue, exchange, a sense of solidarity and the creation of positive relations.

“The new technologies allow people to meet each other beyond the confines of space and of their own culture, creating in this way an entirely new world of potential friendships,” he said.

The pope added that digital communication has built-in limits, including the one-sidedness of the interaction and “the tendency to communicate only some parts of one’s interior world”. The creation of an artificial online image instead of an authentic one “can become a form of self-indulgence”, he said.

The great potential of social networks for building relationships makes it a natural place for the Church to be present, he said. But there is a “Christian way” of being online – through communication that is “honest and open, responsible and respectful of others”, he said.

Archbishop Claudio Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said the pope’s words reflected concern over an aggressive and derisive approach found on some Catholic sites and blogs.

His council was working on a document that would offer, among other things, some reference points about the appropriate tone and behaviour for church-related Internet sites.

Pope Benedict’s message, while underlining the risks of the Internet, was generally positive about online opportunities, saying they had opened new “spiritual horizons”.

He said proclaiming the Gospel through new media was not simply a matter of inserting religious content into online platforms, but also of witnessing the Gospel consistently when communicating choices, preferences and judgements.

This witness, he said, can and should challenge some ways of thinking that are typical of websites – for one thing, he said, the truth Christians want to share is not based on its popularity or the amount of attention it receives.

The pope said the Gospel should be presented online not as a consumer item, but as daily nourishment. That requires communication that is “respectful and sensitive, which stimulates the heart and moves the conscience”, he said.

In their online activities, he added, Christians also need to remember that direct human relations remain fundamental for transmission of the faith.

“Even when it is proclaimed in the virtual space of the Web, the Gospel demands to be incarnated in the real world and linked to the real faces of our brothers and sisters,” he said.

The pope said that believers can help prevent the web from becoming an instrument that “depersonalises people, attempts to manipulate them emotionally or allows those who are powerful to monopolise the opinions of others”.

Archbishop Celli offered an example when social network users are unwittingly tracked for marketing purposes.

While Pope Benedict’s message spoke of the “wonders” of new online possibilities, Vatican officials agreed that the pope himself doesn’t use new media much. Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said that the pope does not surf the Internet much.

The pope still writes with a pen, Fr Lombardi said. But he added that the 83-year-old pontiff fully recognises the opportunities offered by the new technologies, and has encouraged Vatican departments to move forward on digital projects. n CNS