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Have Your Sins Forgiven in 140 Characters
By: Jennifer Graber
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Let us just say you do not have the time to attend World Youth Day in Brazil. And let us also assume you have tapped out your financial resources — so a flight to the Vatican to personally meet Pope Francis is out of the question. Fear not, for your time assigned in purgatory due to your sins can be greatly improved. How, you ask? Well, do not think within the limitations of typical Catholic traditions (but do not forget them either). Pope Francis is coming to your aid with the simple typing of 140 characters.
The Vatican announced recently that Pope Francis will be offering up plenary indulgences virtually via social networking site Twitter later this month during World Youth Day; those physically in attendance will receive the same rites as well. Plenary indulgences are acts or rites that are performed to create a reduction in time spent in purgatory.
Pope Francis will grant these plenary indulgences but one must read the fine print. In order to take part in the virtual plenary indulgences, Twitter followers must have already confessed their sins, and also pledge to saying prayers and attending Mass. The Vatican has carefully ensured that the importance of these additional steps has been stated, saying that "you can't obtain indulgences like getting a coffee from a vending machine."
Digital forgiveness of sins and purgatory reduction might seem like a strange move; one that strays from the tradition of the Catholic religion. However, this social media move is highly strategic for the Vatican and Pope Francis. Employing social media allows Catholicism and Pope Francis to connect with congregants from all corners of the globe, especially those who are unable to personally attend World Youth Day in Brazil.
And though the plenary indulgences are a limited-time engagement, they will create effects that range far beyond World Youth Day. Besides creating a connection with current Catholics, Pope Francis and the Vatican will be able to reach out to those caught in between and searching. This is especially relevant to teens and young adults. Most teens and young adults are in a tumultuous time in their lives, deciding how the crossroads of life figure into who they are as people. And there are many ways in which they "find themselves," religion being one such way. With that particular age group being so digitally linked, putting Pope Francis on sites like Twitter is an excellent way to reach individuals from a group he might not otherwise.
Also, the use of social media as a strategy puts Pope Francis amongst the people. The Pope will no longer be seen as quite so far removed from the rest of the world and the "regular" people, and will be seen as "one of their own." Additionally, social media moves Catholicism into a new era. It shows that the religion is not afraid of changing with the times and needs of the people (something it has had challenges with in the past).
It might seem odd to even think of any religion as a brand in need of digital strategies. Religions are not necessarily brands — there is a whole lot more that goes into them. But it seems reasonable to say that religion can benefit from using digital tactics to reach out to more individuals. Imagine the spiritual power many churches and religious groups would harness if they embraced the digital world. For instance, offering sermons via YouTube or spiritual counseling via Skype? Or what about even using Pinterest (as is rumored to be used by Pope Francis and the Vatican later this year)?
This tactic has been met with mixed reviews. So the question is this — is this dangerous territory for any religion? Or is it a smart move? Do you think that social media will help strengthen and develop one’s religious beliefs or the religion itself? Either way, one must admit that the Vatican and Pope Francis are making some interesting digital moves that have the potential to alter a complex landscape.

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About the Author
Jennifer Graber is a Business Development Manager and marketing enthusiast. Her specific interests include branding, consumer behavior, development, integrated marketing communications, and new & social media.
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