Friday, January 15, 2016

In Today's Audiences, The Pope's "Google Hangout"

As it tends to do often these days, this Friday's Noontime Bollettino of the Holy See Press Office carried an interesting bit of news... and this one more notable than most – for the first time in memory, the Pope had granted a full-tilt private audience to a major corporate exec, and a very conspicuous one at that: the Google CEO Eric Schmidt (above).

In terms of protocol, the sheer occurrence of the sit-down and its announcement alongside the usual crop of routine meetings with prelates is nothing short of extraordinary. As a matter of course – above all given the Vatican's paranoia about playing into any kind of advertising or "product placement" involving the pontiff – secular executives coming to Rome have only ever met Popes in one of two ways: in the bacimano lines alongside the stage at the Wednesday General Audience (when brief handshakes take place after the gathering), or if a business figure were part of a group being received privately for charitable or ecumenical purposes without reference to their work. (In an example of the former, Claire Diaz-Ortiz – the top Twitter exec who served as the Vatican's lead collaborator in 
creating the @Pontifex feed – was briefly presented to B16 at the platform's public launch in December 2012.)

At least, that's been the case until today. While the Vatican has had a partnership with the digital giant since 2009 – when its television arm started running papal events on YouTube – Francis has upped the connection by employing the company's video-chat "Hangout" service (below) on several occasions to hold cyber-encounters with groups of young people far from Rome, with the chats usually tied to his upcoming travel.

Even as the reigning pontiff has put his foot to the gas on internet outreach – most recently taking his monthly prayer intentions to viral video and naming the Holy See's lead social media "apostle" as a bishop in the Curia – it bears reminding that, despite a keen grasp of the medium's import and style, Francis' actual command of technology is almost exceedingly limited. Having revealed last year that he hasn't watched television in a quarter-century to fulfill a promise to the Madonna, before his election the now-Pope once advised an aide that he couldn't operate any device with "more than two buttons." That said, after saying as a cardinal that he planned to delve into the internet after retiring as archbishop of Buenos Aires – a day that, obviously, never came – it has emerged that Papa Bergoglio now keeps a personal email address to hear from old friends and a privileged few prelates, with the account likely being handled by his almost invisible private secretary, Msgr Fabian Pedacchio.

With Schmidt reportedly bringing the head of Google's product-planning Ideas division, Jared Cohen, to the audience, the timing of today's sit-down is especially curious. Keeping with the half-century tradition for the feast of St Francis de Sales (the patron of writers and journalists), a week from today brings the release of the annual papal message for World Communications Day, with 2016's observance dedicated to the theme "Communication and Mercy: a fruitful encounter." As the WCD rollout in 2009 brought the initial announcement of the Vatican's Google partnership, it's quite possible that today's offline "hangout" might be related to some developments to it.

Reflecting the new arrangement at the helm of the Holy See's media operation – and with it, the preparation of the the Communications Day message – for the first time next Friday's briefing on the text won't be led by the president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, but Msgr Dario Viganò, the chief of the recently-established Secretariat for Communications, into which the PCCS, Vatican Radio and Television and the Holy See's Press Office and Photo Service are all being consolidated on a gradual timeframe with an eye to enhanced coordination and effectiveness.

Notably, Viganò isn't slated to be joined at the presser by any of his new department heads, but the director of TV2000, the national Catholic station founded and overseen by the Italian bishops.

SVILUPPO: Hosted via Google servers – as are these pages – here's footage of the audience via Rome Reports....