There is something simple and dead good about a new pope beginning his pontificate by saying “Good evening” to the world. Nothing pious or 'deep', but simply human. I loved it.

It was quite funny watching the instant expertise all over the media from people who, ten minutes earlier, didn't know the Argentinian bishop from the Argentinian centre forward. Within minutes people were making instant judgements on him, his record, his character, his likely priorities. Utterly ridiculous, really. As I said on BBC Radio 5Live (!), we look for the 'iconography' of his appointment whilst ignoring the fact that the new man will have to come at the new role/challenges with a completely fresh approach. The past might give hints, but it won't necessarily set out a predictable future.

That said, however, Pope Francis might well bring an outside eye to the Curia, a South American perspective on both faith and social priorities, a fresh (and credible) critique to the world's dominant cultural obsessions, and a realignment of the Church's priorities with those of Jesus. Who knows if there will be any radical change – probably not in terms of the tough stuff around culturally. Probably both continuity and discontinuity – a bit obvious, really. We shall see.

To do any of this at the age of 76 is a tough call, isn't it? He will need the prayers of those who want him to grasp the nettles of change, and he will covet the encouragement of those who know just how hard it is to bring about change in any institution or organisation.

Anyway, Francis 1 started with human informality. He then asked people to pray for him before he blessed them. He then led people in the prayer that Jesus taught his friends – not as a mantra of pious wishful thinking, but as a manifesto for responsibility and change. As the noise rose around him he stood motionless – a place of rooted calm while the sea raged around him. A good external symbol that might (must?) indicate the internal centredness of the man.

Keep it simple, Francis. Please.

 

Every now and then (about twice a day) I think about giving up blogging. I think it is the enormity of it all and the capacity to get it wrong or say silly things that then stick with you for ever. I sometimes wonder if it is worth all the effort.

But then something comes along that gives new energy and renewed vision: the Pope tells us to do it. The Telegraph reports the Pope’s latest message for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Communications on Saturday and quotes him as saying:

Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audio-visual resources – images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites – which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelisation and catechesis.

Church Mouse picks up on this and comments:

…the Catholic Church seems to be getting the web and new media in a way that the Anglican Church hasn’t yet, and in his speech yesterday, the Pope was spot on.  You can engage with the Pope on Facebook, on your iPhone and the Vatican has a pretty natty website.

Oh dear. Several points to bear in mind once you have read the message itself through the link above:

1. The Pope didn’t actually write his message; I’ve got a shrewd idea who did and he works in the Pontifical Council for Social Communication. So, all the ‘he’s 82 and he can manage it, so why can’t we?’ stuff is a bit off the wall.

2. The Church of England is accessible on phones and web – that’s how I access its stuff most of the time. No, we don’t have the variety or range of access that the Vatican has, but neither do we have the cash to do it. (And, though this is screamingly obvious, the Vatican heads a multilingual but monolithic worldwide Communion – the Anglican Communion has a different (provincial) ecclesiology and a different approach to resourcing its work.)

But, the real point it this: naive (but understandable) appreciation of the Vatican’s operation ignores some pretty significant features which I reported on directly from Rome back in September 2009. (Go to the link and then read back for a few days to get the full picture.)

Vatican Radio (for example) has a budget of 23 million Euros: no one could tell us who set the budget, according to which criteria it was agreed and where it ultimately came from. The total communications budget for the Roman Catholic Church is enormous, but try getting that sort of operation through a General Synod containing (lay) people with views on accountability…

Secondly, what came out of our discussions in Rome was that however flash and wonderful the Vatican’s webby stuff might look, it is a one-way operation. The Church propagates, tells, informs and instructs: it does not need to discuss or debate. Indeed, when I specifically asked about the impact of ‘social engagement using new media’ – that is to say, how such engagement changes the relationship and sometimes means that the interlocutors change their mind as they learn to see from a different perspective – I was told that this is a way of getting people to then join a real community ‘where we can tell them the truth’.

Now, I am not criticising the Vatican for this approach. It is entirely consistent with its understanding of itself as a church (or, more precisely, the Church). It puts on a good show when it comes to communication, but that communication is intended to be one-way only. This became clear at a meeting at the Salesian University back in September which exposed a gap between the aspiration and the reality of Vatican communications.

Look at the wonderful Pope2you site aimed at young people, for example. I have just had a quick look at it and noticed a significant difference from when it was introduced to us in Rome: Wikicath has gone. The single defining characteristic of a ‘wiki’ is that it can be amended, edited, supplemented etc in ‘democratic’ fashion. You couldn’t do that with Wikicath – and now it seems to have disappeared.

I thought the whole point of new media was that it allowed for conversation, engagement and mutual learning. That is, basically, why I started blogging – and I have learned a lot in just over a year.

But, if we are going to romanticise the Vatican’s very impressive and hugely resourced operation, then we must first recognise the theology and ecclesiology that dictate its missiology and communications principles. Secondly, if we are going to compare this with the Church of England (or, even, the Anglican Communion), we have to ask who will provide the financial resources, who will set the priorities, who will dictate the boundaries of engagement and what will be the fundamental purpose of it all.

Incidentally, the connection between communications, Gospel and world is rooted in the priests. When reading such messages as the Pope’s latest, ask if lay people have any role other than to learn ‘the truth’ from the priests – who are the ones who really matter. The Anglican way?

I’ll probably keep blogging – for a while at least.

Cliches weren’t invented in a day either. Like the elephant in the room, they usually take some time before they become embarrassing and merit the epithet of ‘cliche’. That Rome wasn’t built in a day, however, is evident after only a few hours in the place.

Rome 1 002I have never been to Rome before now. I am only here now because I am at a conference beginning on Sunday evening and thought it would be worth coming a couple of days early and doing some sightseeing before the work begins. And the conference will be work as it is focused on Continuing Professional Development for communications professionals in the church and involves a series of meetings which, in this heat, promise to be exhausting.

We met a friend yesterday evening and he took us for dinner in the Vatican behind St Peter’s. Everywhere you look history bears down on you. The Romans left their marks and every generation since them has made their presence known for future generations. It clearly never occurred to previous generations that something had value simply because it was ‘old’. The useless or the symbolically inappropriate simple made way for something more useful.

Rome 1 008So, now you see modern apartment blocks nestling next to huge 500 year old churches. The impression of my first view of Rome is simply that you can trace history in everything your eyes light upon. And that massive and powerful symbol of continuity and spiritual power (for good and ill) sits looking down on a city of amazing vibrancy, diversity and history.

Rome 1 004In England – and especially in our ‘old’ churches – history ended a hundred years ago. Try changing something in one of our churches in order to fit the building for worship and service in the modern world and the amenity societies come running out demanding that we retain them as museums. Surely a church ought to reflect in its physical changes the changes in the generations that have used it? But try telling that to some of the guardians of our ‘heritage’ who loathe any change and try to prevent anyone from interfering with their ‘wonderful example of such-and-such an Edwardian, Victorian/Georgian architect’s work’.

The parish where I was vicar for eight years had everything: Saxon foundations and a Saxon cross, mediaeval rood screen, Elizabethan monuments, a Victorian chancel, early 20th century pews, a late-20th century dais … and we drank out of an Elizabethan chalice. That sense of continuity with previous generations was really powerful.

I understand the need not to vandalise precious buildings, but sometimes it gets out of hand. Rome obviously wasn’t built in a day and nor were our own English churches. But Rome betrays the changes of the centuries and so should our English churches.