In an effort to lure the shrinking flock of young Roman Catholics to a more wired religious world, a Vatican court has ruled that following Pope Francis online and on Twitter can earn believers time off from their sentence to purgatory for confessed and forgiven sins.
The granting of “indulgences” to those who use the Internet to take part in faraway religious gatherings was floated by the pope in a June 3 meeting with members of the Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary, one of three tribunals of the Roman Curia that administers church business.
Three weeks later, the tribunal confirmed in a decree that “the faithful who are legitimately impeded [from attending events in person] can obtain the plenary indulgence if … they follow the same rites and pious exercises … by the new means of social communication.”
The little-noticed decree took on new meaning this week as Vatican officials prepared for World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, a Catholic festival to which the pope will travel, leading the July 23-28 series of sermons, prayers and celebrations.
The offer of online credit toward getting to Heaven reflects the Vatican hierarchy’s apparent concern with the dwindling influence of the Catholic Church in the developed world. While the church is growing in Africa and Asia, it has been losing parishioners — especially among the young — in Europe and the Americas.
Some church leaders have cautioned, though, that merely clicking on the pope’s tweets or liking him on Facebook won’t be enough to shorten a follower’s stay in the afterlife’s anteroom.
“You can’t obtain indulgences like getting a coffee from a vending machine,” Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the pontifical council for social communication, told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera.
“It won’t be sufficient to attend the Mass in Rio online, follow the pope on your iPad or visit Pope2You.net. These are only tools that are available to believers,” Celli noted. “What really matters is that the pope’s tweets from Brazil, or the photos of World Youth Day that will be posted on Pinterest, should bear authentic spiritual fruit in the hearts of each one of us.”
UPDATE: Fr. James Martin clarifies:
The Vatican’s original document offered an indulgence for those who complete a pilgrimage. That’s fairly common. A few years ago, when I made a pilgrimage to the French shrine of Lourdes, one could work towards an indulgence by visiting certain holy sites and praying there.
Once again, the idea is making reparation in penance for your sins. To take a homey example, if you’re a student who talks too much in class, your teacher might ask you to clean the blackboards instead of failing you. To avoid a big punishment you make amends for your mistakes.
But there’s more: the Vatican document noted that the faithful at World Youth Day must be “truly repentant and contrite.” In other words, they must undertake the pilgrimage in a true spirit of repentance. Be sorry for their sins. That’s common, too.
At the end of the document, the Vatican noted that it was not just pilgrims to whom this applied, but another, newer, group: those who might participate “with due devotion, via the new means of social communication.”
Why did the Vatican include that category? As I see it, to be inclusive, something people often accuse the church of not being.
For those who cannot travel to Brazil, because of financial limitations or health restrictions, it’s a way of welcoming them.
To my mind, it’s a generous way of inviting people into the Masses, prayers and liturgies during the World Youth Day. Why wouldn’t you want to include the sick, the poor and the elderly in the community of pilgrims? And why wouldn’t you want to help them participate via the web?
So how did this get so focused on Twitter?
Well, it would seem that The Guardian got hold of “a source” in the Vatican who said, “That includes following Twitter.”
Now, who was the source? We are not told. But that was enough for the headline writers at the Guardian to write: “Vatican offers `time off purgatory’ to followers of Pope Francis tweets.”
That’s already doubly inaccurate. Because, first of all, even the “source” said it’s not enough to just follow the pope on Twitter (as the headline misleadingly stated).