Spreading a Message of Kindness: Why and How the Vatican Revamped Its Technology

By Anne Brazao, Contributor

Even when you’re a venerable, centuries-old institution like the Vatican, you understand the need to adapt and adopt new technologies.

Since the invention of the printing press all the way to the advent of radios and television, the Vatican has been incorporating innovative technologies and adding new communication platforms to help the pontiff spread his message around the world.

Not unlike a business revamping its digital strategy to garner followers, Monsignor Lucio Adrian Ruiz, the secretary of the Dicastery (Secretariat) for Communication at the Vatican, has led the institution’s digital transformation with the end goal of reaching an audience that demands digital content in today’s increasingly digital universe.

The ‘Digital Pope’

Before becoming secretary of the Dicastery for Communication in 2015, Msgr. Ruiz served as the “Pope’s webmaster” and was in charge of the Vatican Internet Service—the telecommunications department behind the Vatican’s web service—since 1997. One of his many challenges as webmaster arose in 2011 with the beatification of Pope John Paul II. There was a huge uptick in online activity and the agility of the Vatican’s web services was challenged, as more than 12 million visitors came to the Vatican websites in a two-day period.

And that wasn’t all. Two million people visited the Vatican to say goodbye to the late pontiff without warning. “There was an immediate need to create the services for this event—and that required agile, highly scalable technology,” says Msgr. Ruiz.

In 2013, with the election of Pope Francis, new onus was put on the Church to become part of the cultural transformation brought about by the internet. At the time, Vatican communications resided within nine separate departments, each producing its own services, ranging from the Vatican’s internet, radio, television, social communications, and newspaper, to its printing press, publishing house, photography, and press office. Because each department was an independent entity, the agile, unified communication strategy that the Pope wanted would have been nearly impossible to implement.

That’s why, in an Apostolic Letter in 2015, Pope Francis created the Dicastery for Communication where all nine communication entities—along with the Vatican website www.vatican.va and the Pope’s Twitter account—came under one, unified direction. Francis has become “the digital Pope” as he uses today’s digital channels to propagate the Church’s message, says Msgr. Ruiz.

“To communicate in today’s culture, you must speak the language of technology: the language of images, of sound, of video,” according to Msgr. Ruiz. “The Pope has learned this language; and, as the principal owner of all Vatican communications, he uses it to great effect.”

Where Does Technology Play?

Pope Francis understands that technology is interwoven into the fabric of 21st century life, says Msgr. Ruiz. That’s why he not only wanted to unify communication groups within the Vatican, but completely transform Vatican communications. His end goal was not simply to reorganize but to create an entirely new organization by rethinking the Vatican’s communication services as a whole.

The intent? Keep the Church and its followers informed, but also forge a deeper personal connection by allowing users to share and even participate in the experience. And his desire to connect has been successful: He has more than 18 million Twitter followers, 6 million Instagram followers, and 3 million Facebook followers.

But while the first step in the Vatican’s transformation was to consolidate the nine communications departments, Msgr. Ruiz points out that digital transformation not only requires organizational change but cultural change, as well.

The cultural changes occurred when more than 600 people working within the dicastery felt the impact of the organizational and technology shifts. They needed to understand the new technology being introduced and how to use it effectively. This required training and new skills development in order for these workers to fully participate in the new digital world order.

To support the new integrated communications, Ruiz deployed additional technologies, like hyperconverged systems and virtualization, which reduced the hardware needed for networking and communications. Through virtualization, the Vatican also consolidated 14 data centers into one, further supporting scalability and sustainability. The consolidation yielded a smaller footprint, less energy consumption, and a reduction in the number of network and storage devices.

“The Pope wants to know the language of the people. He loves to take selfies with the young people who come out to see him because he knows that puts him closer to them.”

—Msgr. Lucio Adrian Ruiz, secretary of the Dicastery for Communication, the Vatican

“The Pope wants to know the language of the people,” says Msgr. Ruiz. “He loves to take selfies with the young people who come out to see him because he knows that puts him closer to them.”

The dicastery’s mission is not just a coordination effort or simple modification of the activities of the various services: It’s a totally new creation based on today’s convergence of diverse media on devices like smartphones. Msgr. Ruiz believes, as does the Pope, that to communicate in this culture you must understand how to leverage technology: speaking in images, sound, video, even the language of the selfie, as well as coordinating events like the Vatican Hackathon. In rethinking combined communication services, the Church is better able to connect with people and spreads its message of kindness.

The Essence of the Vatican’s Communication Strategy

Technology for its own sake is not the point of the Vatican’s communication initiative. Rather, conveying a message so that the intended audience is able and willing to receive it is the goal. Since not all the Pope’s followers live in technologically advanced countries, legacy technology—like short-wave radio—still serves a vital purpose. Listeners may hear the news, a musical program, a meditation, or even a Latin mass, depending upon the programming at any given time. Regardless of the medium, the objective remains meaningful, personal communication between the Church and the people.

This doesn’t mean the Vatican cannot grow alongside innovation, adds Msgr. Ruiz. “We are in the digital culture: In the words of Pope Benedict, there is a ‘digital continent,’ a reality into which we must enter and live, because, if man is there, the Church cannot fail to be there, too.”