Today, Pope Benedict XVI announced that priests and church leaders should be actively using digital tools, including the social web, to communicate with laypersons, particularly young people.

The occasion was the 44th annual World Communications Day, traditionally a time for the Vatican to project an annual message from the church to its people and the rest of the world. This year’s message stood in sharp contrast to the missive he delivered in 2009, when the Holy See stated that mass media – including online information sources – acted as a “poison” that numbed morality and sensitivity. “‘It recounts, repeats and amplifies evil,” he said, “making us accustomed to horrendous acts, desensitizing us and, in some ways, poisoning us.” So, why the about-face?

Today, the pope’s message proclaimed that “priests can rightly be expected to be present in the world of digital communications as faithful witnesses to the Gospel” through means such as “images, videos, animated features, blogs [and] websites.”

In contrast to the popular conceptions of church leaders and religious figures as being out of touch, the Holy Father urged priests to express their message not as a relic or a theory but as something “concrete, present and engaging…

“Consecrated men and women working in the media have a special responsibility for opening the door to new forms of encounter, maintaining the quality of human interaction, and showing concern for individuals and their genuine spiritual needs.”

In essence, the Catholic Church is beginning to sound like some of the clients of digital ad agencies during and after the dot-com boom. While we wouldn’t dare condense the Pope’s message down to “we gotta get us some of that-there Internet,” we do feel that this call to online action is a bit late and a bit out of step with last year’s World Communications Day message.

In 2009, Pope Benedict gave an address on new technologies that seemed like a two-sided coin where the Web was concerned.

While applauding the ability of “so-called cyberspace” to foster dialog between diverse and geographically distant people, the Pope continued to say that the social web trivialized the concept of friendship and might contain words and images that “are degrading of human beings, that promote hatred and intolerance, that debase the goodness and intimacy of human sexuality or that exploit the weak and vulnerable.”

None of these notes were present in this year’s message, which called for a strong pastoral presence online and positioned the social Web as a tool of the ministry rather than a dangerous frontier of questionable content from which to protect laypersons.

What do you think: Should the Church be more visible online? How does the Holy See’s position effect priests and other church leaders on the ground, many of whom have taken to the Web already to enhance their outreach and ministry? And why do you think the Pope’s message is so encouraging about using the Internet as opposed to last year’s cautionary tale? Let us know your opinions in the comments.

jolie odell