The Tweetable Pope: An Interview with Michael O’Loughlin

PicMonkey CollageThe Tweetable Pope by Michael O’Loughlin, the national reporter for Crux, is an excellent new book that focuses on the content, context, and impact of Pope Francis’ use of the social media platform Twitter. O’Loughlin devotes chapters to the various themes found in Francis’ tweets, from prayer to suffering to pro-life issues to inequality. For those who follow Francis closely on twitter, the layout and analysis offer an excellent reflection on Francis’ key themes and serve as a reminder of some of his powerful words that may have been forgotten. For those who do not follow Francis closely on twitter (or at all), there should be enough in the book to motivate that person to create a twitter account or stay up to date on the pope’s latest tweets. These readers will get a close look at Francis’ extraordinary power to condense powerful messages into clear, compact tweets that resonate with people across the globe.

Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed O’Loughlin on The Tweetable Pope:

Do you think Twitter (or social and digital media, more broadly) is changing the way people practice their faith?

A tool like anything else, social media can help people practice their faith or distract them from it. There are lots of spirituality-themed podcasts (I like the Jesuit’s Pray as You Go, for example) and many faith leaders publish inspiring, thoughtful, and challenging “micro-sermons” on Twitter. Pope Francis is especially good at this, hence my idea for “The Tweetable Pope.”

You devote a chapter to work, which seems to be a central theme in Francis’ thought. Why do you think Pope Francis places this emphasis on work and links it so closely to human dignity?

Yeah, the pope tweets a lot about work, especially a lack of meaningful opportunities for young people to “earn their bread,” as he puts it. It comes from his experience of living with the poor in Buenos Aires and from the high number of unemployed young people he now sees in Europe. Anyone who’s ever been out of work knows how difficult it is – materially and spirituality – and so Francis hammers away at his belief that the economy’s got to work for people, not the other way around.

With his visit to Lampedusa and everything else he has done to shine a spotlight on migration and the refugee crisis, what impact do you think Francis has had on migration issues?

It’s hard to quantify a religious leader’s impact on political or moral issues, and Francis thinks immigration is a moral issue. But look at the impact the pope’s visit to the US-Mexico border has had on Donald Trump! Clearly the pope’s words got to Trump. But whether or not they affect how politicians talk about immigration remains to be seen. At the very least, though, the pope’s helping to raise the issue to one of prominence on the left and the right.

You use the words ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ in the book. Why do you view those as fitting descriptions of Francis or his papacy?

Because my editor thought they’d help sell books? Just kidding. No, this papacy is really revolutionary. Even if Francis isn’t blazing new trails every day, as fans of Benedict and John Paul point out, he’s able to communicate Church teaching in a wholly refreshing way, one that captures the attention of people who didn’t really care what the Church had to say before. And in this media environment, that’s pretty radical. Look at his reception on Twitter – the most influential global leader on the platform three years in a row, reaching tens of millions of people with just a few keystrokes. No pope has been able to do that before. That’s pretty radical.

You talk about Pope Francis being a contemplative in action. What do you have in mind with this?

It’s very Jesuit, the order the pope belongs to, of course. It means, I think, being active in the world, fighting for change, and spreading the Gospel. But at the same time it means being able to remove yourself from the daily grind to reflect on what God has in mind for you. There is room in the Church for contemplatives – think of monks and cloistered nuns – but there is also the Gospel call to get out and make a mess of things, as Francis has put it. His trip to Mexico showed both sides. He was out among the people, clearly relishing his time with huge crowds. But he also scheduled some uninterrupted time for prayer in front of the Virgin of Guadalupe. He wants both prayer and work, which is very Benedictine, now that I think of it.

How do you think Francis’ personal experiences have shaped his approach to mercy?

Good question. On the issue of divorce and remarriage, which the Church prohibits, Francis has talked about his niece going through quite an ordeal to obtain an annulment and the pain it caused her and her family. On his call to welcome migrants, he’s traveled firsthand to some of the places where their lives are most at risk, including the US-Mexico border and Lampedusa, Italy. The pope’s priorities aren’t abstract: They’re grounded in authentic, personal encounters. It’s theology from below, as it were, starting from our human experience and working our way up to the divine.

You say that “Francis calls us to live joyful, authentically human lives based on the life of Jesus.” Do you think this commitment to joy and authenticity is behind his appeal to so many millennials, who experience the emptiness of consumerism and superficiality (but perhaps are still searching for a fulfilling alternative)?

I do. I hate to keep harkening back to Mexico, but I was just there covering his visit from El Paso, and the pope was clear that migrants show us a different set of values, not of consumerism and materialism, but of faith and community. I think most young adults (I still am one, I hope) understand this. We’ve been sold a bill of goods – borrow to buy and be happy! – that just doesn’t ring true. There’s a void and a search for something more meaningful, and Francis seems to present an alternative that is at least worth considering.

Francis talks about gossip as poison and as something that kills. What is behind this rhetoric? Is it connected to the value he places on authenticity?

It’s pretty strong stuff, huh? He’s tweeted about this a few times, not holding back at all. And he’s talked about it even more. Part of it, as I write in the book, is that he’s been a victim of gossip himself, with innuendo swirling about decisions he made during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War. Then there’s the Vatican, which having spent some time there reporting, is a den of gossip if there ever was one. But more importantly, at least for Francis, I think, is how gossip can tear apart families and whole communities. He wants us to cut it out. As Chicago’s Archbishop Blase Cupich has told me in interviews, the pope wants us to act like adults. And gossip is childish.

You talk about Francis’ more holistic approach to being pro-life. But when it comes to his comments about not being “obsessed” with abortion, contraception, etc. is it just about showing this consistency or do you think it is also connected to the belief that religion cannot be reduced to a set of ethical guidelines or political positions?

Look, there’s no question where Francis stands on abortion. As he reiterated on his way home from Mexico (there it is, again!), he considers it abhorrent. But he wants Catholics to remember that the Gospels have a lot to say about human dignity at every stage and to make sure the full richness of Catholic social teaching is on our minds and in the public square.