When Eunice Kennedy Shriver died, Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley candidly reminded his Archdiocese of Boston flock that this was one Kennedy who was consistently faithful to the church's teachings. "She was preeminently pro-life, against abortion and there to protect and underscore the dignity of every person," noted O'Malley, praising the founder of the Special Olympics.
When Sen. Edward Kennedy died soon after that, the cardinal strongly defended his own decision to preside at his funeral -- despite the senator's public stands against church church's teachings on abortion and sexuality.
"We must show those who do not share our belief about life that we care about them," O'Malley argued. "We will stop the practice of abortion by changing the law, and we will be successful in changing the law if we change people's hearts. We will not change hearts by turning away from people in their time of need and when they are experiencing grief and loss."
The cardinal didn't deliver these highly personal messages from the pulpit of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. Instead, he posted them on "Cardinal Sean's Blog" at BostonCatholic.org -- his own multimedia journal.
O'Malley isn't alone. A few other bishops and priests have made the jump into cyberspace. However, there will be many more bloggers wearing Roman collars if Pope Benedict XVI has his way. In a message addressed straight to priests -- bypassing the offices of many cautious bishops -- the pope has urged them to start spreading and defending the faith online.
"The world of digital communication, with its almost limitless expressive capacity, makes us appreciate all the more Saint Paul's exclamation: 'Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel,' " said the pope, in a message released on Jan. 24, the feast of St. Francis de Sales, the patron saint of journalists.
"The spread of multimedia communications and its rich 'menu of options' might make us think it sufficient simply to be present on the Web, or to see it only as a space to be filled," argued Benedict, whose online presence has risen with the birth of Pope2You.net and the Vatican YouTube channel.
"Yet priests can rightly be expected to be present in the world of digital communications as faithful witnesses to the Gospel, exercising their proper role as leaders of communities which increasingly express themselves with the different 'voices' provided by the digital marketplace. Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis."
For tech-savvy Catholics, it's stunning news that the 82-year-old Benedict used the word "blog" in the first place, noted Rocco Palmo, the Philadelphia-based scribe whose "Whispers in the Loggia" weblog is a global hot spot for Vatican news and gossip. The tone of this papal message, he added, is relentlessly positive -- a striking departure from the Vatican's many downbeat messages about media in the past.
The bottom line, noted Palmo, via email, is that "against the backdrop of the widespread American experience of mass closings of parishes, declines in attendance, etc., we're learning that one thing that helps folks want to keep staying close is when ... the church realizes that one hour on Sunday just isn't enough, that people are looking for something to help keep them connected and inspired through the week. So I think Benedict is calling priests to see that they have a crucial role in that, and to see this not as some sort of hobby or personal indulgence, but a vitally important extension of their ministry. Anything that bears fruit to that end lifts all boats."
Catholic leaders will, however, need to be careful when working in this chaotic, even deceptive, online world.
After all, some early reports about Benedict's message about digital media mentioned that Vatican officials marked the occasion by opening an official Twitter feed -- @vatican_va -- complete with the Vatican coat of arms.
It was a fake. Catholic News Service soon established that the Vatican has not taken up tweeting -- yet.
"The whole episode has prompted some Vatican media people to remark, 'It wasn't us -- but it should have been us,' " noted John Thavis, the CNS bureau chief in Rome. "So don't be surprised to see a real Vatican Twitter feed in the future."