Media Mindfulness Blog

The Pope and Social Media on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter

The Pope and Social Media on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter

The Feast of the Chair of St Peter

Do we need a special “spam filter” for that?

by guest contributor Sr. Anne Joan Flanagan, FSP. 

On this week's Feast of the Chair of St Peter, an odd feast day name if there ever was one, we solemnly recognize, in faith and in prayer, the Pope's role as teacher in the universal Church. Jesus told the people of his day that they ought to listen to the scribes and Pharisees because they "sit in Moses' chair" (Mt 23:2): They teach with his authority. Assigned to "strengthen the brethren" (Lk 22:32), Peter teaches with the authority of Jesus Christ. Now Pope Francis sits on the "Chair of St Peter."


In his day, the Founder of the Pauline Family, Blessed James Alberione, bemoaned the many powerful voices in the world of media who "put up teaching chairs opposed to that of Jesus Christ," amplifying their erroneous and harmful teachings through powerful forms of communication. Alberione still remembered attending, as a teen, an important Catholic Congress in the year 1900. It was a significant era: Pope Leo XIII was reigning and had urged Catholics to seriously engage the culture and the pivotal social issues of the day. Brilliant minds took up the Pope's challenge. One of them was the economist Joseph Toniolo (now Blessed), one of the speakers at that turn of the century Congress. Decades later, Alberione remembered Toniolo's ringing cry: "Unite! If the enemy finds us divided, he will pick us off, one by one."


A look at social media today will find quite a few Catholics, even people who are sincerely convinced that they are serving the cause of truth, doing pretty much what Blessed Toniolo warned against over a century ago. It is not rare to find these often influential Catholics referring quite casually to the "heresies" of Pope Francis. When they do not go that far, there is still carping and innuendo. Every papal remark, no matter the context, is scrutinized under a presumption of double-speak. It seems that the more inflammatory and outrageous the complaint against the Holy Father, the more viral the post; the more the post spreads, the more the creators of such content are lauded as "speaking truth to power" when what they are actually doing is chiseling at the base of the Chair of Peter, "setting up teaching chairs opposed to that [set up by] Jesus Christ."


This is not to say that Catholics have to be cheerleaders for or personal fans of Pope Francis, the man. To be realistic, though: since most of us depend entirely on commercial media for intermittent, partial, and often poorly translated depictions of the Holy Father and his words, we must admit that we probably don't have all that great a handle on the man's personal qualities. Still, the Feast of the Chair of St Peter is not about the Pope's personality, but about his teaching authority. This feast tells us that we won't go wrong if we remain in that "school."


This is especially critical as the Pope and bishops from around the world meet to begin addressing the horrible scandals that have become public knowledge over the past twenty years (at least in the US; other parts of the world seem to still be in denial about this). While Americans want action (firm, fast and fixed), the indications over the past several months have been that this meeting is only the first stage: getting reluctant bishops to face the ugly truth about abuse among their own.


Especially during this time, then, what we really need is a SPAM filter for Catholic social media when it comes to posts related to the papal ministry. I mean, be on the lookout for:


S: Suspicion and negativity. The Holy Father should be able to count on the goodwill of all Catholics and not defend himself ahead of time from misinterpretation that could be read into his words by those already inclined to disagree. (We can all certainly have legitimate questions, but not every public forum is legitimate for raising them.)


P: Presumptions or assumptions, both of the writer's own impeccable goodwill and orthodoxy and of the Pope's possibly duplicitous words and actions. St Ignatius of Loyola made clear 500 years ago that we must assume, not the most heretical interpretation, but the most orthodox meaning possible when encountering an expression we find hard to reconcile with Catholic truth. If we fail, despite all our efforts, to imagine an orthodox interpretation, St Ignatius further states that we should presume that the reason for that inability has to do with a failure on our part (for example, some ignorance of our own that blinds us to a pivotal insight).


A: Adversarial language or style, especially disrespectful references to or disparaging nicknames for the Holy Father himself. Catholic writers and social media influencers have a lot to answer for when people turn those pejoratives into commonplaces. (We Paulines offer a special prayer every first Tuesday of the month for souls who are in Purgatory because of the way they used media, in particular for writers and other content creators whose responsibility is magnified by the power of the media they use.)


M: Misgivings. A hallmark of this spam factor is the word "but," as if the speaker were pained to bring up the very point he or she is making in opposition to what is being presented as the Pope's message (which very, very often is a straw man; refer to "P").


Let the Catholic on social media adopt the slogan:


If it's Catholic SPAM, it goes in the CAN!



On the other hand, we could follow St Paul's recommendation and "overcome evil with good" (Rom 12:21), by offering wholesome SPAM (though never in a way that would give the original more exposure):


Support and

Positively (prayerfully! publicly!)

Affirm the Papal



Do this, and you are celebrating the Chair of St a Catholic!


Sr. Anne Joan Flanagan, FSP, is a Daughter of Saint Paul and a singer, writer and speaker currently working on digital projects for the Daughters of Saint Paul its publishing ministry, Pauline Books & Media. She currently blogs at Nunblog and you can follow her on Twitter @nunblogger.

PHOTO: Sergey Smirnov CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons




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