Twitter, purgatory, and “authentic spiritual fruit”

Pope Francis Visits The Island of LampedusaThere’s something more than a little odd about the latest news out of the Vatican, that good Catholics can win “indulgences” by following Pope Francis’s Tweets during World Youth Day, a week-long event starting on July 22.

Of course, Jorge Bergoglio isn’t the first pontiff to take advantage of social media. Pope Benedict got the Twitter ball rolling when he opened the first @Pontifex account not long before deciding he’d had enough of being pope. At the time, it seemed like a stroke of brilliance by whoever dreamed up the idea: getting Joseph Ratzinger onto Twitter was a cunning way to connect an otherwise aloof and remote intellectual pope with the masses; a strategy of winning broader support for his message, particularly among younger people who make up the vast majority of Twitter users. On a superficial level at least, it made Benedict seem hip and contemporary—especially when his Tweets—limited as they were to 140 characters—made his message seem friendlier or less of an imposition on people’s life choices than it actually was. So what does it mean then, that his successor—who is far more likeable and in tune with the masses—uses this most advanced of popular communication technologies to revive a completely archaic Roman Catholic concept that should have been left behind in the Middle Ages from whence it came?

For the uninitiated: church-granted indulgences are intended to reduce the amount of time that Catholics believe they will have to spend in purgatory after they have confessed and been absolved of their sins. (For those who believe in this sort of thing, purgatory is a state in which the souls of those who have died in grace must expiate their sins.) Indulgences, or remissions, were eventually frowned upon because too many greedy and unscrupulous clerics were revealed to have sold them for large sums of money. Bad reputation aside, the concept of indulgences has never really died in the Catholic Church. Clearly Francis, who has seven million Twitter followers, is willing to exploit it for soul-saving purposes.

But how’s it supposed to work? Are some deeds worthier than others? Climbing the Sacred Steps in Rome can earn you seven years off purgatory. What will indulgences be worth to those who attend Catholic World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro? Or the throngs of faithful who cannot afford to fly to Brazil? According to the Guardian, the Vatican’s sacred apostolic penitentiary (a court that handles the forgiveness of sins), will grant indulgences to those following the “rites and pious exercises” of the event on television, radio and through social media. But there’s a caveat, of course. “You must be following the events live,” a source at the penitentiary told the Guardian. “It is not as if you can get an indulgence by chatting on the Internet.” Or, as Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the pontifical council for social communication, told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera: “You can’t obtain indulgences like getting a coffee from a vending machine.” Well, thanks for clarifying!

Apparently the indulgences will depend on the beneficiary’s ability to prove having previously confessed and been “truly penitent and contrite,” as well as praying with “requisite devotion” while following events in Rio online. No word yet on how these indulgences will be assessed and distributed. The more important thing, explains Celli, is that “the tweets the Pope sends from Brazil or the photos of the Catholic World Youth Day that go up on Pinterest produce authentic spiritual fruit in the hearts of everyone.” Authentic spiritual fruit? I guess that depends on what the Pope’s message is and how the world’s Catholic youth respond to it. If Francis orders the crowd in Rio to stop having abortions and pre-marital sex, or silences women who want to be priests, or repeats Benedict’s anti-gay bigotry, the rotten tomatoes may turn out to be just as “authentic.”

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