A Tale of Three Tweets

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

Recently I expanded my presence in social media and joined the Twitter universe. I had resisted the temptation for a long time as I considered it to be an unnecessary exercise, trivial even. And besides, I had other outlets to express my views and get into trouble, including this regular column, Facebook, and occasional media interviews.

But then I realized that tweeting had become a normal, almost expected, way of communicating in our culture today. The President does it, the Pope does it, other bishops do it, organizations do it, so why not me? On February 21st, then, I wrote my first tweet, a harmless little message about Lent.

Since that modest beginning, I’ve become intrigued by the tweeting experience. I’ve written about 250 tweets, am following exactly 100 others, and have nearly 2,000 now following me. My tweeting is pretty eclectic. I write about the Church, about liturgical seasons and devotional practices, about national and local issues, about sports, the weather, and even my dog. I’m astounded by the Twitter network – it’s huge and immediate. Within a few hours my thoughts can be, and have been, read by tens of thousands of folks across the nation, even across the globe.

For example, consider the following three tweets, all about the Church, which illustrate the impact of social media.

It struck me during a Funeral Mass today – most of the mourners, family and friends, were wearing black. The priests were all wearing white. Question: Why do we have that disconnect with the instincts of the faithful?

Now, as I’ve explained in this space before, for the color of vestments for a funeral, white, violet and black are all approved and acceptable. The choice depends on local custom and the discretion of the priest celebrant.

But the tweet with my simple question generated a huge, emotional response – 39,000 people read it, 422 liked it, and 110 commented. The replies were all over the lot. Some folks debated the theology behind the various colors; some recounted their personal emotions in burying a loved one; some thought we should wear black to reflect the grief of the mourners; others that the Church should use white to express our hope in the resurrection.
Another tweet, also about funerals, drew another huge response.

There are so many unchurched, Catholic “dropouts” attending funerals these days, folks ineligible to receive the Holy Eucharist, I wonder if sometimes it might be more prudent, more pastorally sensitive, to have simple funeral services without the Mass. Your thoughts?

I raised this question because I’ve heard our pastors speak of the problem they encounter when celebrating a funeral of a faithful Catholic with so many unchurched family members and friends in attendance. And, in fact, a funeral service without the Mass is a viable option.

Well, I asked for thoughts and I got plenty. 14,432 people saw the tweet, 96 liked it and 115 replied. Again, their comments reflected a variety of concerns and approaches. Many said that despite the spiritual condition of the mourners, the deceased, a faithful church-going Catholic, “deserved” a Funeral Mass. Some observed that the Mass, with a compassionate, well-prepared homily, could be a powerful moment of evangelization. Others took a very practical approach and suggested that a simple, sensitive announcement inviting only properly disposed Catholics to receive Holy Communion could address the pastoral problem. Valid points, all well-taken.

One final example of how tweets can address issues in the Church today.

The so-called “confusion” in the Catholic Church these days hasn’t reached into the pews. It’s more of an issue for prelates and pundits. The problem among the faithful isn’t confusion – it’s apathy.

Well, those two sentences set off a Twitter firestorm. It was read by almost 90,000 people, liked by over 700, and drew over 100 comments. I wrote the tweet because of a certain dichotomy I’ve noticed in the Church.

On one level, comprised mostly of “professional” religious types, there is a relentless debate about the direction of the Church, with a lot of that centered on Pope Francis and especially, his pastoral letter on Marriage and the Family, Amoris Laetitia.

As I travel around the Diocese, however, for numerous pastoral visits, where I’ve encountered thousands of typical Catholics, not one person has expressed concern about Amoris Laetitia. They’re more concerned about their own parish and school; they seek a blessing if they are ill, or ask me to pray for a loved one; they thank me for sending their pastor; they tease about the Steelers.

The response in the Twitter world was different however. Lots of folks said that indeed there is confusion in the Church today and that it will have a long term effect; some blamed the Second Vatican Council for everything; and some indicted the leaders of the Church – especially bishops and priests – for poor leadership and flawed teaching.

Oh well, these three tweets are just a sampling of my Twitter experience. It’s proven to be an interesting and stimulating encounter, and it seems to me to have the potential for great good, but also some mindless mischief too.
So I guess I’ll continue tweeting since it provides an additional outlet for teaching, commenting, and sharing some personal thoughts. Just pray, please, that I’ll be prudent. Given my tendency to be “outspoken” (as some have charitably described me), I fear that at some point I’m likely to tweet something that’s inappropriate or offensive. So, presuming on your kindness, I hereby ask for your understanding and forgiveness in advance.