What Schools Can Learn About Communication From the Vatican’s Former...

column | Leadership

What Schools Can Learn About Communication From the Vatican’s Former Social Media Chief

By Reshan Richards (Columnist) and Stephen J. Valentine (Columnist)     Mar 19, 2019

What Schools Can Learn About Communication From the Vatican’s Former Social Media Chief

In 2017, Monsignor Paul Tighe may have been the only priest amidst a sea of techies at South by Southwest (SXSW), where he spoke about his past experience serving as Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications for the Catholic Church. (Think “social media director” for the Catholic Church.)

Odd as his presence may have seemed, it was not out of the ordinary for the Church, which first devised a social media strategy around 2010. Two years later, Pope Benedict XVI made a Twitter account, which today claims nearly 18 million followers.

Monsignor Tighe is now the Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture in the Vatican. But he’s a teacher at heart. In a conversation with us, Monsignor Tighe shared hard-won, pragmatic, and clear principles about communications, technology, and the bonds we build. Taken as a whole, his comments offer guidance and guardrails to teachers, administrators, technology directors, and anyone interested in the cultural or communal aspects at schools or other organizations.


Monsignor Tighe calls his educational profile and path “one of the most disjointed you will ever find.” In secondary school in Ireland, he pursued science, thinking he was heading for a career in medicine. Toward the end of his secondary school experience, though, he shifted to “healing in the broader sense,” reading more deeply in the humanities. Philosophy and theology followed, and then law school, where he learned “a way of thinking and a way of analyzing, and also to be parsimonious with the use of words.”

More philosophy and theology followed, and he was ordained a priest in 1983. After that, as his vocation dictated, he taught religion and civics in high school, and professional ethics to people in the field of medicine and other professions. He developed his personal theory of communication in the classroom, and it served him well when he was called to the Vatican to work specifically on the burgeoning field of digital communication.

Monsignor Paul Tighe
Monsignor Paul Tighe (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Monsignor Tighe: While teaching I learned that I was responsible not only for transmission, but also for reception. It doesn’t matter how well you teach or what you’re saying; the real vindication and judgment to be made about the quality of your teaching is when you interact with your students and listen to understand, or correct examinations in order to understand what they’ve understood. Specifically in secondary school, I learned that you’re responsible not just for what you’re saying, but for what the other person is understanding.

A lot of that is about understanding the other person’s culture, their vocabulary, realizing what’s working or not working in the way you’re teaching. For all my subsequent work, I feel that good communication comes from being an insecure teacher. Even if I’m preaching, to this day, I don’t use a text. I watch people’s faces. I can see if they’re lost or if they’re following me, and I think it’s my responsibility to complete the communication cycle at some level.

When I arrived in the Vatican around 2007-2008, everything was beginning to happen with digital communications. I was lucky. I had no professional training. I didn’t come from TV, radio or newspapers. I had none of the traditional loyalties, and I moved very quickly to focus on digital. This was partly because nobody knew too much about that area. I saw that they would all have to change their way of acting, their way of working, in order to be accommodated on digital platforms. Such platforms are much more about the integration of text, visual images, and voice than previous traditional media.

I also became more interested in digital changes as not only something that affected media, but also, and more important, something that affects our whole culture. We now live in a world where young people, in particular, can produce media, express themselves, are used to expressing themselves, have different ways of learning, have different ways of finding out information. They have different ways of forming relationships and friendships that I think go way beyond the concerns of media, and it really opens up a cultural issue.

A year and a half ago, Pope Francis asked me to move into the Department of Culture with a particular responsibility for looking at the implications of the digital revolution on the culture of the church and on the culture of the world.

Asked to pay attention to and notice how digital media or digital habits were influencing people, not only from a marketing or consumption perspective, but also from a relational or cultural angle, Monsignor Tighe found ways to convert random intersections into a viable and generous network.

Monsignor Tighe: People who don’t know the church terribly well tend to focus on Rome, and Rome is symbolically important; it’s a point of unity for Catholics globally. But the truth is that the Catholic church is at its strongest, very often, at the local level. We have a network of universities, communities and media resources throughout the world. A lot of our early thinking was to understand the Church as a network—as a community of communities—rather than to understand it, as we traditionally have, as a hierarchy.

A lot of our work in coordinating the Vatican’s engagement with digital media was actually trying to see where around the world things are being done well. Can we identify a best practice? And can we then share that with different people in different parts of the world who will have to adjust things for their own culture or context, for their own environments?

The key is to build stronger relationships between people. Communications always have two parts. The first is an exchange of information. The second is the building of relationships. In the digital environment, the relationship side of that equation becomes significantly more important.

Monsignor Tighe’s insights are instructive, even corrective, for educators, especially those pushing for technological interventions that might quicken or streamline certain instructional practices without necessarily maintaining pedagogical effectiveness.

Monsignor Tighe: Teaching, in my experience, is something magical. When you see people growing in their understanding as they grasp a concept that you’ve helped them to “get,” you’re teaching people to walk. You’re giving them autonomy. Very often they’ll be out-sprinting you. The really good students often take what you’ve given them, go back and correct it, and move on further.

If you look at and talk to people who have major achievements, very often they will point to a teacher who made a difference, who believed in them, who gave them confidence. One of the things that I think we need very much nowadays is to broaden the concept of the teacher. We have people who have in front of them extraordinary volumes of information. We have to help them learn how to discern, how to judge, how to be able to use their existing knowledge, their vindicated knowledge, to test what is being given to them by different sources.

We’re all conscious of the fake news problem. I think better curation is part of the answer, but I think it’s much more about enabling people to develop logical skills, to develop [a sense of] objectivity, to be less prone to being manipulated by more emotional presentations of arguments. I think a lot of those human skills are learned in relationships. They can be direct relationships, face-to-face, or they can be mediated relationships online.

As for the latter, I think those work best when there is already an existing face-to-face relationship. The digital then takes over, moves onwards, and develops and strengthens that relationship.

Monsignor Tighe is perhaps most incisive when he talks about the ways in which technology can support and even extend the most human parts of his work. Although he frames it from the context of his work in religion, his approach applies to practically any organization in which relationships matter.

Monsignor Tighe: The church exists precisely to communicate. If we’re not communicating and building relationships well, we’re failing as a church.

Therefore many church people have an interest in technologies and in platforms that enable them to bring people into discussion and into dialogue. I think the particular challenge for us as a church is, we’ve had to learn that the new digital platforms facilitate a type of communication that’s more interactive . . . that’s not simply, “I’m sitting quietly in the pew” and “you’re standing up at the microphone talking down to me.”

We’re learning as a church that even though the digital platforms allow us to put much more material out there to get our information across, if we want to engage people, if we want to actually impact people and change minds and change hearts, we actually have to allow people to question us—allow people to dialogue with what we’re saying.

We have to listen to people, engage with them empathetically, understand what their concerns are—and social media allows us to do that. It allows us to understand what’s worrying people, to see what’s on their mind, and then to join them on a journey and share our insights with them very much at the pace that they want.

Though he believes in the power of technology to build relationships, Monsignor Tighe also believes that we have to be vigilant in how we train both teachers and learners to approach the powerful tools at their disposal. There’s a shift he sees as inevitable but not entirely intuitive.

Monsignor Tighe: In the early days [of personal computing] there was a tendency to think that, first thing, we have to have a computer in every classroom ... that we have to have a SMART board in every classroom.

What wasn’t necessarily as good [back then] was the training of teachers to realize the potential of those means, and also of having to develop new ways of teaching in light of the technological platforms.

I’m old enough to remember a time when, if I went to the library to find books and couldn’t find what I was looking for, the library requested an interlibrary loan with another library, and a month or so later I may have got the textbook I was looking for. At that time the teachers were, in many ways, gatekeepers. They marched through a volume of information and then filtered that down and handed it to me, and that was it. I had no direct access to their sources of information.

That has all changed today. I can be teaching in class and realize that the kids I’m teaching are, with their tablets, looking at the materials on which I am basing my lesson. I can either feel threatened by that, or I can change my method and embrace the fact that they can directly access primary sources and earlier materials. I would hope that the whole methodology for teacher training is changing so that people are learning how to be guides and mentors and accompany people into the digital world, rather than to be gatekeepers.

I think a second thing that is very important is to help people see the potential to work and learn together, with others. Certainly the system I came out of was all about the individual, who did his or her work and was evaluated on his or her own work. I think new technologies mean that we have to teach people how to learn in network capacities so that they realize that the volumes of stuff we’re trying to deal with, the kind of issues we’re trying to look at, require people to work together.

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