This past weekend, Pope Francis called the mother of Jesus the “first ‘influencer.’ ” It was a comparison that struck many as surprising for several reasons, not least because Mary was a Jewish Galilean peasant born in the first century BCE who was not that active on Instagram.
The reference to Jesus’ mother as an “influencer” was drawn from Francis’ Saturday address to attendees of World Youth Day, an international festival that some call the “Catholic Woodstock.” This year’s festival in Panama attracted an estimated 600,000 young people, many of whom camped out overnight in order to attend an early Mass on Sunday.
Francis’ address on Saturday took technology as its motif. “Life is not a salvation up ‘in the cloud’ and waiting to be downloaded, a new ‘app’ to be discovered,” he told the crowd, according to an English translation provided by the Vatican. “Still less is that life a ‘tutorial’ for finding out the latest news.” It could not be determined by press time whether the pope knows what a tutorial is.
The meat of Francis’ message was a call to embrace the “story” to which God calls each person. But tweeting that the mother of Jesus was “the ‘influencer’ of God” was bound to be what grabbed people’s attention. Indeed, the juxtaposition of 82-year-old religious leader plus social media mumbo jumbo proved irresistible to the extremely online.
“The young woman of Nazareth was not part of the ‘social networks’ of the time. She was not an ‘influencer,’ but without wanting or trying to, she became the most influential woman in history,” Francis told the crowd on Saturday. “Are you willing to be an ‘influencer’ like Mary?” he asked.
Perhaps the Vicar of Christ binged both Fyre Festival documentaries on the flight to Panama? We can’t rule it out. Was he trying to sound hip in order to reach the youths of Panama? Possibly, but these particular young people were already willing to camp out overnight to attend a special church service, so they don’t seem to have required much pandering.
The reference to Mary as an “influencer” was clumsy at best, and maybe even trivializing. (Maybe the Magnificat made Mary the first mommyblogger, too.) But what the people teasing Francis have mostly missed is that he has been grappling with the possibilities and pitfalls of technology for his entire papacy. Yes, that has included some ham-handed comparisons along the way. Last year, for example, he called the strategy of the serpent in the Garden of Eden “the first fake news.” But the pope knows a thing or two about online influence. He has said he’s personally a “dinosaur” when it comes to technology, but his nine Twitter accounts in nine different languages have about 48 million followers, and he became the fastest-growing Instagram account when he joined in 2016. Just last week, he launched a new app and online platform called “Click to Pray,” which invites users to pray with him and each other.
He has also taken the dangers of social media seriously. In a video last summer, he said the internet “is a gift from God, but it is also a great responsibility.” In his major 2015 encyclical on sustainable development, Laudato Si, he warned about “contrived emotions” fostered by “internet communication.” “Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections,” he wrote. “Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.” As the influencers say, 💯.