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The Vatican Sends Its Social Media Guru To SXSW Festival


People keep telling us that the best way to experience South by Southwest is to leave room for the unexpected. So here was something that was definitely unexpected. For the first time in the conference's 30-year history, the Vatican sent a representative. Bishop Paul Tighe was a speaker in one of the technology panels. His formal title is adjunct secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture. But he has been referred to as the Vatican's social media guru. And Bishop Paul Tighe is now back in Rome, but we called him there to tell us more. Bishop, welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

PAUL TIGHE: I'm very happy to be here. You know, I'm always anxious to distance myself from that social media guru title (laughter).

MARTIN: You'll give us an indulgence on this one, right?


MARTIN: OK. So we should remind people that the pope has more than 10 million followers on Twitter. He also has an Instagram account. Why do you think it's been important for the Catholic Church to have a voice on social media?

TIGHE: One of the things that we became very anxious about was to understand that social media or digital culture in general is changing the way people relate to each other. It's changing the way people form community. It's changing the way people communicate and share ideas. And as an organization that obviously has a real interest in how we communicate with people or what we have to say with people and how we relate to people, it was clear to us we had to think about what an appropriate presence for the church in the digital arena would look like.

MARTIN: Tell us about your panel, Compassionate Disruption. First of all, why the Vatican felt it was important to have a presence at South by Southwest. And tell us - what was the focus of your discussion on your panel?

TIGHE: Yeah. The first thing was we got this invitation from out of nowhere, in a sense, to consider being present at South by Southwest. And it's one of those arenas which we know is very important and a huge number of people gather there. It creates a lot of conversations. And therefore, it seemed to us very important to avail of the opportunity to be part of the discussion. That was the starting point. The actual theme we wanted to look at at our conversation was around this idea of compassionate disruption, that digital reality has caused people to rethink things they are doing. And for church, we have to rethink what we're doing. But we also wanted to be very clear that what we have to say as a church is also in its own way disruptive.

As you walk around Austin these days, you see so many young people brimful of ideas, with new things to pitch and new things to sell, who are really investors in kind of making it within the digital industry. And one of the things we wanted to say is look, that's great. That energy is important. But it means a lot of people are under a lot of stress. They're having to perform. They're having to deliver. They're having to earn attention. They're pitching themselves as well as their products.

From a gospel perspective, one thing we wanted to say is look, God loves everybody, irrespective of whether he or she is successful or not successful. It's not something that we earn. And that the disruption, as we would see it, is essentially coming from the freedom of God's love, the fact that this is a gift to all of us and makes us think differently about how we live with one another.

MARTIN: The social media world has become understood to be a place in which so much hate it also takes place. And I'm wondering how - as people of faith, how do you respond to that?

TIGHE: What we would want to say is that we have to stay present because if we don't, we're in a sense handing over the culture to those who want to use it for negativity. So what we've tried to do is to encourage people to use the potential of social media to build relationships, to be encouraging, to be people who support others, recognizing that at times that's going to be countercultural, but also recognizing that if we don't do it, then we're losing something that has enormous potential. And, I mean, we experienced ourselves - when Pope Benedict went on Twitter to begin with, we experienced a lot of the negativity.

But one of the things we felt was look, if we drop out of that arena, then in a sense, the haters have won. So one of the things we've said is, you know, let's try and stay there and affirm the positive. And that's, I think, what I would want to say to all people, whether they're people of faith or not. When you're online, be there, but don't let it dictate your discourse. Say what you have to say and say it well and say it positively. And don't let your message be defined by those who are being negative.

MARTIN: Bishop Paul Tighe joined us from the BBC in Rome. Bishop, thank you so much for speaking with us. And we hope you're having a meaningful Lent and that you have a blessed Easter.

TIGHE: Thank you very much. And look, best wishes to you and all your listeners. Wish you all every blessing at this time.


MARTIN: As we've said, while we've been here in Austin, we've seen a lot of talented musicians playing on street corners. Here's Charles Rangel. He caught our attention because of the way he was playing his guitar.


MARTIN: He was sitting on top of his amp, playing an acoustic guitar lying flat across his lap. The hole at the center of the guitar, the sound hole, was plugged with a rubber stopper. He plucked the strings of the guitar with one hand and tapped and beat it with the other, creating what sounded like a drum beat. We just wanted to give you another little taste of what we heard walking around the streets of Austin this week.


Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered,where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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