Papal Receptivity to New Inventions …. Down the Ages

Avishka Mario Senewiratne, originally in MESSENGER of 24 February 2019, where the title reads “Great Moments where the Pontiffs embraced State of the Art Technology

Since the early centuries, where the church was established many of our church fathers and pontiffs have shown interest in new inventions, the beauty of science and technology, and so on. With the dawn of the renaissance, pontiffs were much eager than before in the advancements of technology, music, and arts. Some pontiffs embraced these new discoveries, while some were dealt with a controversial sense at that time. Nevertheless, in the last two centuries, we have noticed how our holy fathers have dealt with one-time fantasies: new inventions in a more positive sense. Not just have they enjoyed the fruits of these but also have inspired all to use them to be better children of God, to be better men and women of glory, and so on. This article is an attempt to point out some key events of where the Holy Fathers at that respective time embraced the state of the art technology in the past 150 years.

Who doesn’t like photographs?

Pope Pius IX

During the longest reign of a Pope after St. Peter, the very first Pope, there was a series of changes socially, politically, and spiritually. Bl. Pope Pius XI reigned in one of the most turbulent times of the Church’s history (1846-1878). Though the rule of Pope Pius IX was somewhat a controversial one in terms of his administration, he was a simple and holy man who was quite a liberal leader at the beginning of his long pontificate. Apart from his sharp temper, he was a man of good humor and never hesitated to adapt to the state of the art technology at the time. For centuries the church gave ample patronage to art. Be it the oldest mosaics, stained glass arts to the magnificent painting of Michelangelo, and Da Vinci, art was considered something divine. During Pope Pius IX’s time, the style of photography flourished. Though in the initial times’ photographers had to toil for days and hours exposing the camera to get a photo done, within the time to wait reduced significantly. Thus many photographers wanted to take Portraits or special events photographed. However, they weren’t obsessed to take photos over and over again, or perhaps in front of bathroom mirrors!

However, Pope Pius IX loved to be photographed. Though some of his Cardinals disliked the idea of being photographed. One of them was Cardinal Guiseppe Pecci (Elder brother of future Pope Leo XIII). He said that paintings were the far superior benevolent presentation of a human being than photographs. However, there’s one portrait photograph of him. He could not escape the fantasy of the camera!

Nonetheless, Pope Pius IX had an amazing idea in terms of taking photographs. He loved to pose in various ways and soon got a habit of taking photographs developing them in numbers. Next, he himself autographed them. Soon they were distributed to the corners of the earth, and Catholics and others, who hadn’t have the chance to visit Rome were able to see the Pope for the first time. Everyone has seen priests and bishops, some may have seen a cardinal but only a few had that time seen a Pope. The people had the curiosity of knowing what may the pope look like? What may he wear? So on. During the time where the Pope was called a “Prisoner of the Vatican”, where he had hardly any access out, Pope Pius IX had the charisma and ability to change the point of view of the pontiff by the common person. Before him, his immediate predecessors were somewhat worldly in their manner of administration, but he took the extra leap to emphasize the spirituality of the papacy in his long reign. He was the creator of the Modern Papacy which has resulted so positively to this date.

Nevertheless, the man who runs his mantle this day has a taken yet another step where Pope’s embraced the latest types of photography. Selfies start getting popular in 2013. This was the very year Pope Francis was elected pope. He who once said he was not in touch with computers may hardly know to take a photograph from a smartphone. However, the mediagenic Pope, was loved especially by the free-thinking youth. They did not waste time to take a selfie with the ever-smiling Pope. In August 2013 the Pope was scheduled for an audience with a group of 500 teenagers from the Diocese of Bobbio and Piacenza, 50 miles south of Milan. After the event, a few students managed to take a group selfie with the Pope. Soon after one of the teenagers posted the photo on social media, it went viral in no time. Thus, Papal selfies became famous, and people old and young, do not think twice now to take a selfie with the Holy Father if a chance is provided.

Photographs have undoubtedly become a part of many cultures now, even Popes now and then fathomed the fact, and thus we who possess means to capture vital moments in life must not hesitate to do so. Nevertheless, what God gave to man must be used only for the good of humanity, not to be exploited to quench the thirst of selfish, evil desires. Photographs are indeed a modern means of art. Its value must never be under-estimated.

Pope Leo XIII sings Ave Maria!

Pope Leo XIII’s blessing being filmed

Unlike his brother (as mentioned previously) Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) fancied the inventions of his time. Scottish inventor William Kennedy Dickinson, under world-famous inventor Thomas Edison invented the first motion picture camera in the early 1890s. He visited the Vatican in 1896 and successfully made the short film “Sua Sanita Papa Leone XIII”. Pope Leo is seen entering a room holding a stick, with his aides, sitting down, and finally blesses Dickinson’s camera. Though audio wasn’t recorded for this film, it was certainly something priceless. However, a few months before the Pope died, in 1903 his audio was finally recorded, of him chanting the Ave Maria in Latin. These footage and audio are significant for three main reasons. One it was the first of any Pope in his history, the second, Pope Leo who was born as early as in 1810, is historically acclaimed as one of the oldest people ever to be recorded and filmed, and the third it was the first-ever papal blessing filmed. He was at a ripe old age of 93 in 1903.

Rare footage of subsequent popes is available for the public to see, on social sites such as YouTube. (On Pope Pius X and Pope Benedict XV).

Pope Pius XI establishes the Vatican Radio with Marconi himself

(Left) Guglielmo Marconi, (seated right) Pope Pius XI

By the pontificate of Pope Pius Xi (1922-1939), many had the blessing to see the pope’s image and some were lucky to see the pontiff in footage and audio recordings. With the rapid popularity of the radio technology, Pope Pius, a man of science himself, not just wanted to speak to the world but also to form the Vatican Radio as well.

For this next-level project, Pope Pius chartered no one less than the inventor himself, Guglielmi Marconi. During the course of the construction, the pontiff accompanied Marconi in every detail. He was marveled at the power of radio. Soon the date was set as the 12th of February 1931, Pope Pius was to address the entire world. Marconi himself, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (future Pope Pius XII) was by the pope as he addressed the world. Millions of faithful all around the listened to the loudspeakers connected via radio. It was the first time people in England, the Americas, Asia, and Africa were able to listen to the message of the Holy Father. Though the message was written by the Pope himself, it was in Latin, so many did not understand what the Pope said. Before the Pope spoke, Marconi said the following via radio, “With the help of God, who places so many mysterious forces of nature at man’s disposal, I have been able to prepare this instrument which will give to the faithful of the entire world the joy of listening to the voice of the Holy Father.”

In the Pope’s address, he greeted the members of the Catholic Church, he urged rulers to show justice and charity and citizens respect for legitimate and lawful authority. The Pope prayed the Lord would lead “infidels and dissidents removed from faith and unity with Christ” to unite with the “flock that hearkens to his the voice that there may be only one fold and one shepherd”.

Pope Pius XI finally said “It makes centuries-old doctrine relevant and gives the impression the church is staying up with the times,”

Television and the Papacy

Soon with the dawn of the Television, people wanted to see things beyond their native country. And the Vatican was certainly one of those things they wanted to see. Pope Pius XII delivered two filmed messages to France and the USA in 1949.

On the 6th of June 1954

St. Pope Paul VI observing the moon landing in 1969

, the feast of the Pentecost, Pope Pius XII solemnly inaugurated the creation of Eurovision. He greeted the TV viewers and delivered a speech in five languages. This date marked the beginning of live TV telecasts to Europe of Papal celebrations.

During this time many videos of the Pope were recorded in color. This attracted many more viewers.

Pope John XXIII (1958-1963), who was always a man ahead of his time, just like calling the council, knew the importance of the television. In 1961 he had a day-in-the-life documentary. He certainly started doing reality T.V. fifty years before many so-called celebrities started doing them. By 1978 all significant papal events were well broadcasted live on T.V. world-wide.

Pope Benedict XVI makes the first papal call to space.

The usage of telephones started in the 19th century, and by the reign of Pope Benedict XVI (2005-2013), the world’s technology was booming rapidly. On the 21st of May 2011, Pope Benedict XVI became the first Pope in history to make an outer space call. It wasn’t just a message he addressed, he had a conversation with the brave astronauts from the Foconi Room in the Vatican Library. He asked questions and they replied to them. Not just on science but also on their personal lives as well. The Pope finally said, You are our representatives spearheading humanity’s exploration of new spaces and possibilities for our future.”  The call was arranged by NASA, the European space agency, and the Italian Space Agency. Furthermore, one astronaut, Mark Kelly, said the following during the conversation, “On Earth, people often fight for energy; in space, we use solar power and we have fuel cells on the Space Station. You know the science and the technology that we put into the Space Station to develop a solar power capability gives us pretty much an unlimited amount of energy. And if those technologies could be adapted more on Earth, we could possibly reduce some of that violence.”



This wasn’t the first Vatican-Space connection. More than forty years ago, Pope Paul VI, sent his special message via the radio, when Neil Armstrong made the first moonwalk in July 1969. The Pope personally observed the moon that day from the Vatican Observatory in summer residence, the Castel Gandolfo. Later he would meet the first men on the moon in the Vatican.




The Popes and Social Media


The twenty-first century is undoubtedly the century the world became so small. Social media is so viral that most of the youth and even adults dwell in social media than the outer world! However, there are many advantages of social media, especially encountering people who live millions of miles apart, sharing knowledge, and so on. Pope Benedict XVI became the first pontiff sign in to a Twitter account. The Twitter account name was called @Pontifex, which meant “Bridgebuilder” in Latin. He joined it through his iPad in 2012. “Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart.” Said the Pope. The world showed positive remarks in this new gesture of the pope, and many said it was the best way to get in touch with the Pope. It is said that the Pope himself writes his tweets.

First Papal Selfie – 2013

His successor Pope Francis, who is perhaps the most mediagenic pontiff ever continues to get in touch with universal Church and all using social media. A short time after Pope Francis met Kevin Systrom, co-creator, and CEO of Instagram, Pope Francis himself joined the popular photo social media app in 2016. His first post was him kneeling down and praying. The caption was “Pray for me” in nine languages. The Pope soon posted on Twitter saying, “I am beginning a new journey, on Instagram, to walk with you along the path of mercy and the tenderness of God,”

Kevin Systrom welcomed the Pope saying, “Watching Pope Francis post his first photo to Instagram today was an incredible moment. @franciscus, welcome to the Instagram community! Your messages of humility, compassion, and mercy will leave a lasting mark,’’

First Instagram post of Pope Francis

Media, science, and technology are good. They are given to us by the creator of creations, God himself to embrace the love of God and humanity. God expects us to be in peace, to reason, and fathom the facts of life and creation. The men who sat on the throne of St. Peter, used the state of the art technology to get in touch with the faithful globally, to know what they want, their problems, and so on. Thus, God invites us every moment to use technology with wisdom to bear fruit to an unending bond of love and knowledge. The choice is ours to pick the right path at this crossroad!


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