The Vatican gets interactive: Catholic social media interns talk life behind the tweets

Sean Hudgins and Danielle McMonagle are not the first Villanova students to intern at the Vatican, but they may be … Continued

Sean Hudgins and Danielle McMonagle are not the first Villanova students to intern at the Vatican, but they may be the luckiest: The junior communications majors began working with the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications only one day after Pope Benedict XVI resigned, throwing them into the middle of a historic — and “very hectic” — papal transition.

Previous college interns have helped set up the pope’s Twitter account and worked with the Catholic News Service’s Rome bureau as part of an an exclusive, 10-year-old partnership between Pennsylvania’s Villanova University and the Vatican. Hudgins and McMonagle work on a multinational team of roughly a dozen full-time staff, who oversee the church’s Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr profiles. They Skyped us after work from Rome.

What was the atmosphere like the day after Pope Benedict resigned?

Sean Hudgins: It was a crazy first day. When we got there, everything was very hectic. We had the name of the person to report to, but we only met briefly — people were running all over the place. It was a crazy scene.

Danielle McMonagle: Yeah, even people who had worked there for years had never experienced anything like that. Everyone was trying to figure out how the resignation process worked, especially in the communication office, where they had to explain to the public what was going on. It was definitely a neat experience to see how that unfolded firsthand.

Hudgins: When something like that happens you have to drop everything — the office had to do a 180 from what they were working on before. But there wasn’t any negative energy … I wouldn’t call it stressed, even. Just busy.

What’s an average day like for you?

McMonagle: We work four days a week, Monday to Thursday, from nine to one. After that we get on a bus and go back to campus, where we have class from two to five. On Fridays we have off — or off work, at least. We take an Italian language class in the morning instead.

What are your responsibilities at the Vatican?

Hudgins: We predominantly focus on the News.va English Facebook page. We have credentials for that, and we try to come up with content and repurpose content to make that page a more interactive news outlet for the Vatican. We also monitor Twitter activity — there are all sorts of parody accounts we have to watch out for. We also do some photography for the Facebook page, which is pretty neat.

McMonagle: We went to Pope Benedict’s final audience and his final blessing. We were in the square when the white smoke appeared. We got to see Pope Francis’ installation Mass. Because we’re here at this time, we’ve gotten to go to so many events and shoot photos and videos for the Facebook page.

It’s interesting that you say you’re trying to make the Facebook page “more interactive.” Is the Vatican trying to engage more people that way?

Hudgins: It’s something we talked about with our boss. Initially he had us look at the page and said to us, ‘you guys are younger, you’re more into social media, what do you think this needs?’ One thing Danielle and I noticed was that the Vatican put a lot of messages out there, but didn’t invite much feedback. It’s something that we’re working on, making it more interactive.

McMonagle: The Facebook page is relatively new, too. They’re trying to think of ways to get involved in the social media world using things like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. I think the office has been very open to the idea of building on that and finding new ways to reach a different audience via social media.

By different audience, do you mean young people?

Hudgins: Not specifically. Social media hopefully tends to reach a younger generation than the church is used to, but it’s not something we’ve focused on per se.

I think social media allows the Vatican and the church to reach way more people than they could have before, regardless of those people’s ages. Our boss has even said, with Twitter, the pope can send one message out and reach more people simultaneously than he ever could before.

Is Pope Francis planning to tweet more than Benedict did?

McMonagle: It’s hard to tell now. He did choose to use a Twitter account, and that’s of course step one. It will be really interesting to see, especially with Easter coming up, how often he uses Twitter, and for what. We’re excited to see how that goes out but right now we don’t know how often he’ll use it.

Hudgins: I think the buzz in the office is to increase how often Pope Francis tweets, if possible. But it’s up to him — we can try to influence it, but it’s ultimately his call. We’ll see.

A lot of people seem to think that the church is reluctant to embrace technology or change. Have you observed that, working in the Vatican?

Hudgins: I think that’s a bit of a misconception, at least within the past five to 10 years. Before that I would say yeah, there’s been a reluctance to really use technology, but now a lot of people in the church see that it’s essential to keep up with the times and to continue making Catholicism relevant. It’s something that’s here to stay.

McMonagle: I think the Vatican is seeing that technology and social media can have a positive effect on the number and type of people that we can reach. Even when I first got to work and started seeing it, I was surprised and impressed by the church’s involvement in social media. That’s been really cool to see.

  • BobLM

    “In 1974, 10 years after the Vatican joined International Telecommunications Satellite Organization (INTELSAT), the Vatican’s social communication office, headed by then Archbishop Andrzej Maria Deskur, contacted the Knights of Columbus to seek support for a significant expansion of televised Masses.” (From http://www.KofC.org)

    So our young interns just aren’t aware of how willing the Vatican is to embrace technology.

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