YouTube at the Heart of the Vatican
By Rev. Robert Barron
Two weeks ago, I was privileged to participate in the plenary meeting of the Pontifical Council for Culture. This curial department, led by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, concerns itself with the interface between the faith and the many facets of the contemporary culture. I had been asked to share some insights gleaned from the work that I do in my Word on Fire media ministry. The opening session of the meeting took place in a sumptuous room in a palazzo on the Campidoglio, the symbolic center of the city of Rome. That evening, we heard from a representative of French television and a professor of film at the Pontifical Gregorian University.
The next morning, all of the participants gathered for Mass at the “altar of the chair” in the apsidal end of St. Peter’s basilica. Then we wandered down to the dicastery offices on the Via della Conciliazione, the great boulevard that runs from St. Peter’s down to the Tiber. There were about fifty people in the room, gathered around a horseshoe-shaped table equipped with microphones and equipment for simultaneous translation. Among the members of the committee were Cardinal Walter Kasper, the retired head of the office for ecumenism, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the retired Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Angelo Scola, the Archbishop of Venice, and Archbishop Mark Coleridge, the head of the church of Canberra in Australia. The three official languages of the meeting were English, Italian, and French, and I would venture to say that most of the participants were more or less conversant in all three tongues. In the course of the first day, we heard from Santiago Calatrava, the Spaniard who designed, among many other buildings, the Art Museum in Milwaukee, and from Ennio Morricone, the legendary composer of film scores from “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” to “The Mission.” Maestro Morricone shared with the group some reflections on the process of composing music for “The Mission,” which is generally regarded as one of the most powerful religious films of the past fifty years.
The final slot of the day was given over to my presentation. I will admit to being more than a little nervous, speaking to such a distinguished international assembly. The first part of my talk was a reflection on what I’ve termed “the YouTube Heresies,” the four typical blocks to the proclamation of the faith that I have encountered through my internet work. These are deep confusion about 1) the meaning of the word “God,” 2) the manner of interpreting the Bible, 3) the relationship between religion and science, and finally, 4) the rapport between religion and violence. (If you want the full treatment of these, take a look on my website, wordonfire.org).
My presentation closed with a seven minute video that my team helped to assemble. The purpose of this video was to demonstrate how someone today might navigate his way from a purely secular interest to one of my videos and then through my website. Our point of departure was suggested by a letter we received from a young man who said that he had hated the Catholic Church and priests but that he had been interested in Bob Dylan. A Google-search led him to one of my videos in which I discussed the theology implicit in Dylan’s classic song “All Along the Watchtower.” This led him, in turn, to look at another of my videos and then another. Finally, he came to the website and began a detailed exploration of Catholicism. This process led him finally, through God’s grace, to an embrace of the Catholic faith. We tried to show in the video how this young man surfed his way on the Internet from a purely secular interest all the way into the heart of Catholicism.
I was very pleased that my presentation was followed by a very lively hour-long discussion. Almost every participant around the table said that he or she was surprised and impressed by the power of the Internet to communicate the faith. Several raised concerns about superficiality: how could one possibly proclaim Catholic doctrine and morality in all of their complexity and integrity in the course of a ten-minute video? I responded that Internet videos are obviously inadequate to the fullness of the Catholic faith—but that they are a start, a seed, a manner of reaching out, especially to the next generation. Archbishop Coleridge made the fascinating remark that the Internet, despite its drawbacks, represents a sort of mystical body or communion, whereby millions of people can come into contact with one another and with the faith in a non-exclusive and non-competitive way. I confirmed that a video, once posted on YouTube, is immediately available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all over the world—an outreach for which St. Paul or Fulton Sheen would have given his right arm.
The next morning, as we gathered in the sacristy of St. Peter’s to vest for Mass, I spoke in broken Italian to Cardinal Ravasi. I was delighted to hear that he is a great advocate of the use of the new media in the propagation of the faith. Under the auspices of the dicastery for culture, he sponsors a program called “Il Cortile dei Gentili” (the courtyard of the Gentiles), which tries to establish contact with the world of secularists and non-believers. We agreed that we should collaborate in the future. I came away from this gathering with great excitement, knowing that a passion for the Internet, YouTube, and the full range of the new media can be found in the heart of the Vatican.