The Papal Prayer Machine

In the days following Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he would resign last month, the Catholic men’s organization the Knights of Columbus offered a novel way for the faithful to take part in their Church’s transition from one leader to the next. 

Following the pontiff’s request that all Catholics “continue to pray for me, for the Church, and for the future pope,” the Knights naturally asked for prayers. Breaking new ground, however, they proposed that these prayers might not merely be spoken at home, declaimed during mass, or formed in the privacy of one’s thoughts. The prayers for Benedict and his successor should, instead, be put on display in the growing global commons of the Twitterverse. According to their press release, the Knights were “encouraging people to send their prayerful support to Pope Benedict XVI directly by tweeting ‘I am praying for you’ and the hashtag #prayerforthechurch to the pope’s twitter account.”

The tweetless were not left out—one could record their pledge to pray for the pope at, or even mail in an actual paper prayer card—but they presumably would not enjoy the Twitter-specific thrill of imagining that @pontifex himself might note their devotion while scrolling through the papal mentions feed. In any case, the names of all those who pledged to recite a daily prayer written by the supreme chaplain of the Knights of Columbus, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, would be brought to the installation mass of the new Bishop of Rome, whomever he may be. 

Requests for prayers on behalf of particular people or purposes are of course nothing new. Every week the Catholic liturgy includes the General Intercessions, also known as the Prayers of the Faithful, a call and response portion of the mass in which a lector intones specific devotional intentions for which, he or she says, “we pray to the Lord,” and the congregation answers as one, “Lord, hear our prayer.” 

Without a doubt, the Knights of Columbus stood safely within the bounds of orthodoxy in proposing the Twitter element of their papal prayer initiative. Yet the translation of prayer through a new medium added a complicating dynamic to an already difficult-to-define act.

Apart from being a technology of instant communication, Twitter is a massive catalogue of otherwise unrelated information. Prayers offered ephemerally—whether spoken aloud in a group, or silently while alone—inevitably mean something quite different when they become quantifiable, static, and searchable by keyword. As the old internet saw goes, if you’re not paying for the product, you’re the product being sold. Every tweet is a commodity, even the prayerful ones, and the cash value of prayers is a question Rome might not care to revisit.

There is also the matter of the company praying tweets can’t help but keep. In addition to being brought to the Vatican as part of the spectacle of elevating a member of the College of Cardinals to the Chair of St. Peter, every message sent to @pontifex will be archived in perpetuity as part of the Library of Congress’ collection of 170 billion tweets, a limitless index of the sacred, the profane, and the lulz.

Nonetheless, judging by the proliferation of prayer-related hashtags and handles, social media might as well have been designed for intercessory pleading. The efforts by the Knights of Columbus to make #prayerforthechurch a trending topic are only a small part of Twitter’s use as a vehicle for petitioning the divine. The hashtags #pray, #prayer, and especially #prayerrequest offer a constantly updated view into private concerns made public; supplications tick by the hundreds every hour:

#PrayerRequest for my brother, they found a cyst on his brain the size of tangerine! God knows all about it. 

#PrayerRequest For baby Ruben, having trouble breathing on his own, he needs strength! Please pray for him!

I hate doing this… But can someone please pray for me. I’m in need of it now. #prayerrequest #please

Likewise, Twitter accounts specializing in sharing and answering prayer requests deliver followers to portals (like this and this) where the nature of the relief sought can be made known without a specific petition appearing next to your avatar. While some accounts, such as @request_prayers and its affiliated site, are crowdsourced, others have volunteer prayer teams standing by.

@OurPrayer, the prayer request handle for Guideposts magazine, offers a description of its service that could serve as a script for heaven’s own automated telephone response system: “Your prayer concerns are important to us,” says, “and that’s why each and every prayer request we receive is prayed for by a trained volunteer by name and by need.”

Such uses of Twitter make it part of a long tradition of technology’s tendency to remake faith in its own image. According to Franklin and Marshall College’s John Lardas Modern, who’s currently writing a book on “prayer machines” ranging from the Catholic rosary to Scientology’s e-meter, the marriage of innovation and devotion dates back to religion’s earliest days. The mechanized aspect came into its own in the nineteenth century, when spiritualist inventors built contraptions that could have been torn from the pages of H.G. Wells, designed to focus the power of prayer like sunlight through a magnifying glass. The dreams of those tinkering mystics were perhaps not so different from the hopes of Twitter users today beaming their prayers toward the Vatican: to gather and amplify pious intentions, and to transform belief into a tangible force. 

“For better or for worse, Twitter is a wonderful medium for prayer,” Modern says, “allowing individuals to achieve self-worth, a felt sense of community, and leverage upon the world.”

And like the one-way conversation all social media can at times seem, he adds, “Prayer is prayer because there is no guarantee that it will be answered or even heard. The uncertainty gives it a certain promise. With Twitter, there is just the right mix of calculable dissemination and mystery. You know who has retweeted or favorited your prayer, but what of the followers of the followers of the followers who follow you who did not retweet or favorite but may have read and been affected by your prayer? The sense of the unknown is palpable and it is quite real. Every time one’s prayer is favorited or retweeted, a little bit of divinity is manifest on the screen.”

It’s been suggested that the Twitter handle @pontifex, along with its variants in eight languages, might be retired completely now that Bednedict XVI has become Pope Emeritus. More likely, the handle will be taken up again by whomever fills the empty chair. Indeed, shortly after he left the Vatican by helicopter last week, the former pontiff’s social media footprints (all thirty-nine tweets) were unceremoniously deleted (and archived here), as if to leave a clean slate for his successor. Given that he has traded the balcony overlooking Saint Peter’s Square for a monastery far from the public eye, his millions of followers will no doubt understand.

Yet the end of the first Twitter papacy nonetheless raises a theological question for our hyper-connected times: The catechism teaches that Jesus “hears the prayer of faith expressed in words or in silence”—but what becomes of tweeted prayers if God’s account is inactive?

*This essay was made possible through a program of the Social Science Research Council with support of the John Templeton Foundation. Visit Reverberations for more information.

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