It probably takes a lot to render the founder and chief executive of the world’s largest social network “starstruck.” But even for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, a private audience with Pope Francis is a unique moment.
According to a statement released by the Vatican Press Office, Zuckerberg and Pope Francis “spoke about how to use communications technology to alleviate poverty, encourage a culture of encounter, and to communicate a message of hope, especially to the most disadvantaged.”
Pope Francis has been critical of the tech industry in the past, suggesting that it is “incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things.” Though he seems to be of a few minds on the matter. During his meeting with Apple CEO Tim Cook in January, he claimed that, “Emails, text messages, social networks and chats can also be fully human forms of communication.” For Francis, “It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal.”
Such a sentiment might help explain what the Pope meant when he discussed the opportunity to create a “culture of encounter” with Zuckerberg. According to The National Catholic Reporter, this notion of “encounter” is among Francis’ most deeply held beliefs and represents “reaching out, fostering dialogue and friendship even outside the usual circles, and making a special point of encountering people who are neglected and ignored by the wider world.”
In the Pope’s own words, he described this culture of encounter as one “in which we find brothers and sisters, in which we can also speak with those who think differently, as well as those who hold other beliefs, who do not have the same faith. They all have something in common with us: they are images of God, they are children of God.”
Why would Zuckerberg, a self-proclaimed atheist, talk to the Pope about the “children of God”? Well, perhaps it was to give the Pope a drone that aims to provide a social good. As noted by the Los Angeles Times, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan gave the Pope a “solar-powered aircraft that will beam Internet connectivity to places that don’t have it.” The gift functions as a response to Francis’ previous comment that, “social networks can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division between individuals and groups.”
The internet is no longer a luxury but a crucial necessity for the world’s population, making ties between the tech industry and an institution like the Vatican increasingly critical. “We should not overlook the fact that those who for whatever reason lack access to social media run the risk of being left behind,” the Pope said on World Communications Day in 2014.
The meeting between Zuckerberg and Pope Francis seems as much a symbolic “encounter” as it does a friendly discussion. It represents a growing partnership between the Church and the tech industry to seek out new ways to better human lives, to channel “the human heart” in the digital age.