Before and After the First Papal Tweet

How Benedict XVI Promoted “Communio” in a World of Social Communications

Originally presented at a conference on “Catholicity as Gift and Task” on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Communio, at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry (Rochester, NY) on October 2, 2022.

The historic date was 12/12/2012. It was then that, on a specially prepared tablet — “not, this time, carved of stone, but instead what appeared to be an iPad 4” — Pope Benedict XVI entered personally into the frenzied world of social media, sending the first ever papal Tweet to more than a million people following his account worldwide.1

Though not a work of his typically profound theology, the pope’s messaging on Twitter and other social media nevertheless expresses his long-held conviction about the need for, and value of, “communio.” With the push of a button, his voice became “a powerful invitation to all believers to express their ‘voices,’ to engage their ‘followers’ and ‘friends’ and to share with them the hope of the Gospel that speaks of God’s unconditional love for all men and women.”2

More significantly, Benedict’s reflections give voice to the understanding of Catholicity as “gift and task,” a duality defined by Balthasar as the distinguishing feature of that communio which the Church both seeks and provides.3 That twofold ecclesiological reality now confronts the digital domain, which has emerged as not just a sphere of life, but an all-encompassing realm in which the rediscovery of holiness needs to be infused. As Benedict notes, the world of new communications technology is not a parallel universe in which only experts dwell; rather, it is the daily environment in which we all live and work, one that results from, and gives shape to, our identity and our relationships.4

As such, the realm of social communications assumes an important place in the magisterium of Pope Benedict XVI, as evidenced in various discourses on the subject and in his annual messages for World Communications Days. There we find evidence, in his example and even more so in his thought, that in this realm he promoted the “gift and task” at the heart of Catholicism by guiding us along a four-point trajectory: from connection to communication to community and to communion.5

Connection (technology)

Just four days after being elected Pontiff, Benedict gave an address to representatives of social communications in which he reiterated the teaching of the Second Vatican Council in Inter Mirifica (the Decree on the Instruments of Social Media) by noting that “the possibilities opened up for us by modern means of social communication are indeed marvellous and extraordinary!”6 Digital technology, in his view, is clearly a gift.

The task for the Church, then, lies in our need to make a “responsible contribution” to this world of new media “so that instruments of social communication can provide a positive service to the common good.”7  After all, as Benedict would later say in his first message for World Communications Day, the technology does not work automatically. In his words, “the immediacy of communication does not necessarily translate into the building of cooperation and communion in society.”8 Instead of placing our trust uncritically in technical instruments, “our efforts consist in being Church, a believing community that can witness to all the perennial newness of the Risen One, with a life that flourishes in fullness to the extent that it is open, enters into relationships and is freely given.”9

Communication (anthropology)

Benedict roots the connection between technology and faith in a theological anthropology that connects human aspiration and divine incorporation. This, as he explains, is a gift of creation:

The diverse forms of communication . . . and their different instruments . . . are all manifestations of the fundamental nature of the human person. It is communication that reveals the person, that creates authentic and community relationships, and which permits human beings to mature in knowledge, wisdom and love. However, communication is not the simple product of a pure and fortuitous chance or of our human capacity. In the light of the biblical message, it reflects, rather, our participation in the creative, communicative and unifying Trinitarian Love which is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. God has created us to be united to him and he has given us the gift and the duty of communication, because he wants us to obtain this union, not alone, but through our knowledge, our love and our service to him and to our brothers and sisters in a communicative and loving relationship.10

Thus, for Benedict, digital connection affords us the possibility of realizing a fuller form of communication than the mere sharing of information. As he reminds us, “When we find ourselves drawn towards other people, when we want to know more about them and make ourselves known to them, we are responding to God’s call — a call that is imprinted in our nature as beings created in the image and likeness of God, the God of communication and communion.”11

We answer this call to communicate through the modality of language, which Benedict describes as “the living, pulsating context in which human thoughts, anxieties and projects come to life and are patterned in gestures, symbols and words.” In this context, “the human being . . . does not only ‘use’ but, in a certain sense, ‘dwells’ in language.” But in the digital world, our languages have changed; now they “determine among other things an intuitive and emotive rather than analytical ability, they are geared to a different logical organization of thought and of the relationship with reality, [and] they frequently give priority to the image and to hypertextual connections.”12

In the digital world, the modalities have changed, but from Benedict’s anthropological viewpoint, people remain inherently involved in what they communicate. “When people exchange information, they are already sharing themselves and their vision of the world: they become ‘witnesses’ of what gives their life meaning.”13 Our task, then, is to communicate life’s meaning by a distinctive way of being present in the digital world, which

takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others. To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preferences and judgements that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically. Furthermore, it is also true in the digital world that a message cannot be proclaimed without a consistent witness on the part of the one who proclaims it. In these new circumstances and with these new forms of expression, Christians are once again called to offer a response to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is within them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).14

Community (ecology)

The hope-filled response that the Church proclaims by way of the digital witness of believers can become a gift to society, as well. Reflecting today’s “ecological” understanding of digital media,15 Benedict recognizes that social communications do more than express thoughts and opinions. Today’s new media, in fact, have the power to engineer changes in attitude that affect how we view people and shape our common life. As he explains in his encyclical on human development:

Just because social communications increase the possibilities of inter-connection and the dissemination of ideas, it does not follow that they promote freedom or internationalize development and democracy for all. To achieve goals of this kind, they need to focus on promoting the dignity of persons and peoples, they need to be clearly inspired by charity and placed at the service of truth, of the good, and of natural and supernatural fraternity. In fact, human freedom is intrinsically linked with these higher values.16

Our task, as believers, is to bear witness, even in the digital realm, to the truth that the higher values of human community are expressed and fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. “In the final analysis,” Benedict writes,

the truth of Christ is the full and authentic response to that human desire for relationship, communion and meaning which is reflected in the immense popularity of social networks. Believers who bear witness to their most profound convictions greatly help prevent the web from becoming an instrument which depersonalizes people, attempts to manipulate them emotionally or allows those who are powerful to monopolize the opinions of others. On the contrary, believers encourage everyone to keep alive the eternal human questions which testify to our desire for transcendence and our longing for authentic forms of life, truly worthy of being lived. It is precisely this uniquely human spiritual yearning which inspires our quest for truth and for communion and which impels us to communicate with integrity and honesty.17

Communion (ecclesiology)

In that quest for communion, the Church’s proclamation of faith offers a gift to our digital world. In the Good News, to echo McLuhan’s famous dictum, the medium is the message. Benedict construes this Christologically by noting how “the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, is at the same time both a message of salvation and the means through which salvation is brought about. And this is no mere concept but a reality accessible to all.” He then derives from this reality the mission of the Church in the (digital) world:

Moreover the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, in our time present everywhere, nourishes the capacity for more fraternal and human relations, representing both a place of communion among believers and a sign and an instrument of the vocation to communion of all. The Church’s power is Christ, and in his name she “follows” human beings on the highways of the world to save them from the mysterium iniquitatis, treacherously active within it.18

To bring about this communion on the highways of a digital world, the Church’s task remains the same — to proclaim the Gospel — but now in a culture which “arises from the very existence of new modes of communication that utilize new forms of language rather than from the content, employing new technology and creating new psychological attitudes.” Ours is the challenge of maintaining the content of faith unchanged, while “rendering it comprehensible also thanks to means and methods that are in keeping with today’s mentality and culture.”19

In the digital culture of today’s world, social communications can and should assist us in being connected toward communion. Along the way, communio derives from the gift of our faith and informs the task of our bearing witness to it. As Benedict concludes:

For those who have accepted the gift of faith with an open heart, the most radical response to mankind’s questions about love, truth and the meaning of life — questions certainly not absent from social networks — are found in the person of Jesus Christ. It is natural for those who have faith to desire to share it, respectfully and tactfully, with those they meet in the digital forum. Ultimately, however, if our efforts to share the Gospel bring forth good fruit, it is always because of the power of the word of God itself to touch hearts, prior to any of our own efforts. Trust in the power of God’s work must always be greater than any confidence we place in human means.20


Communio as gift and task comes about through Christ’s presence among us, through the Paschal Mystery and reality of the Church, and our response to that divine presence lived in the holiness we are to bring to every sphere of life. With anthropological and ecclesiological insight, Pope Benedict XVI links this Christian truth to the digital world in which we now dwell.

But more than a magisterium, Benedict’s teaching about truly social communications also comes about through his example before and after that first papal tweet.

He answered his own invitation to all Christians, “confidently and with an informed and responsible creativity, to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible . . . not simply to satisfy the desire to be present, but because this network is an integral part of human life.”21

He practiced what he preached by communicating profound thoughts in concise phrases on Twitter,22 where he showed “a willingness to give [himself] to others by patiently and respectfully engaging their questions and their doubts as they advance in their search for the truth and the meaning of human existence.”23

And he modeled what he called upon all priests to do, namely, to be responsible in proclaiming the Word by using new communications technologies in “more focused, efficient and compelling efforts.”24

Communio is at the heart of Benedict’s theological enterprise and inspired his leadership of the Church. In both he demonstrated what he wrote in his final message for World Communications Day, a conclusion that we would do well to embody in our own life and work:

These (digital) spaces, when engaged in a wise and balanced way, help to foster forms of dialogue and debate which . . . can reinforce the bonds of unity between individuals and effectively promote the harmony of the human family. The exchange of information can become true communication, links ripen into friendships, and connections facilitate communion. If the networks are called to realize this great potential, the people involved in them must make an effort to be authentic since, in these spaces, it is not only ideas and information that are shared, but ultimately our very selves.25

  1. Esther Addley, “The Pope’s first tweet: no jokes, no kittens,” The Guardian (12 Dec 2012),
  2. Vatican Press Office, “Press conference to illustrate the presence of the pope on Twitter” (3 Dec 2012),
  3. Nicholas J. Healy, “Communio: A Theological Journey,” Communio 33 (Spring 2006): 125.
  4. Message for the 47th World Communications Day (2013), online.
  5. Cf. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, Connected Toward Communion: The Church and Social Communication in the Digital Age (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier Books, 2014).
  6. Address to the Representatives of Social Communications (23 April 2005), no. 2, online. Cf. Inter Mirifica, the Decree on the Media of Social Communications, promulgated by His Holiness Pope Paul VI on 4 December 1963, online.
  7. Address to the Representatives of Social Communications (23 April 2005), no. 4, online.
  8. Message for the 40th World Communications Day (2006), no. 2, online.
  9. Address to Participants in a Congress on “Digital Witnesses. Faces and Languages in the Cross-Media Age” organized by the Italian Episcopal Conference (24 April 2010), online.
  10. Address to the Participants at a Convention on the Theme: “Identity and Mission of a Communications Faculty in a Catholic University” organized by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications (23 May 2008), online.
  11. Message for the 43rd World Communications Day (2009), online.
  12. Address to Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications (28 February 2011), online.
  13. Address to Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
  14. Message for the 45th World Communications Day (2011), online.
  15. The Church Communications Ecology program at the University of Notre Dame (online) describes that understanding in this way: “Technologies are not neutral. As Fr. John Culkin said, ‘we shape our tools and, thereafter, our tools shape us.’ Television, smartphones, social media and other technologies have changed how we think about and relate to one another. An ecological approach studies these environmental shifts to use technology to promote human dignity, subsidiarity and solidarity.”
  16. Caritatis in veritate, encyclical letter on Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth, no. 73, online.
  17. Message for the 45th World Communications Day (2011), online.
  18. Address to Participants in the Congress organized by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications (7 October 2010), online.
  19. Address to Participants in the Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications (29 October 2009), online.
  20. Message for the 47th World Communications Day (2013), online.
  21. Message for the 45th World Communications Day (2011), online.
  22. Message for the 46th World Communications Day (2012), online.
  23. Message for the 47th  World Communications Day (2013), online. While he had hoped to evangelize the digital content by answering questions via Twitter, that interactivity ceased due to the overwhelming volume of inane comments.
  24. Message for the 44th World Communications Day (2010), online.
  25. Message for the 47th World Communications Day (2013), online.
Fr. Thomas F. Dailey About Fr. Thomas F. Dailey

Ordained in 1987, Fr. Dailey is a priest in the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. He holds a doctoral degree in biblical theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University (Rome) and currently serves as the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.


  1. Avatar Oliver Clark says:

    Catholicity is gift not also task. Family member procreation role gift and task of union of identities as need of the family are inseparable and qualitatively equal. Pope Francis corrected this misrepresentation caused by fraud and embezzlement on 10 June 2021 by his accountability and amends in the Becciu + 9 and “Zan” bill cases.