Rome, November 23, (Crux). A recent case of an Italian priest asked to leave his parish due to outspoken remarks against Pope Francis and his unconventional practices, highlights the current polarization among some factions of the Church as well as the power of social media to amplify and foment it.
Division is nothing new in the Vatican, but Pope Francis' reform and openness to change has generated consistent backlash. His document on the family, Amoris Laetitia, which cautiously opened up to the possibility of communion for the divorced and remarried, was met with criticism. In early November, a theological adviser to the U.S. bishops' conference, Thomas Weinandy, released a letter accusing the pope of causing "chronic confusion."
The latest public declaration of dissent comes from the pope's own backyard, more precisely in the Southern Italian city of Palermo, where Father Alessandro Minutella, of the southern Italian city of Palermo, recently published a video on social media where he refused to declare loyalty to the pope as requested by his bishop.
The first warning in Monreale
Minutella had gotten in trouble in the nearby Archdiocese of Monreale - a city just a few miles from Palermo in Sicily. Back in 2015, Monreale's Archbishop Michele Pennisi disciplined him due to his comments against the pope, and because he claimed to speak on behalf of the Virgin Mary.
Minutella had even created an order of nuns without authorization, and claimed he and his followers had dug out a well of miraculous water. At the time, Pennisi warned faithful that whoever "supports his activities and collaborates with him [Minutella] is at serious risk for the safety of his soul."
Minutella is sent away from his parish
At his new parish of San Giovanni Bosco in Palermo, the priest continued to speak his mind and claimed to communicate with Saint Joseph, Mary, and the Archangel Michael, drawing large crowds to his Masses where he declared his intention to defend the Church from heresy.
On his social media accounts, Minutella said his goal was to stand up against "the imposture of the false Church" of Pope Francis.
The social media Mass
Despite the interdiction by the archbishop, the priest resorted to social media in order to express his dissent with the decision. In a 'Mass-show' posted live on Facebook, the priest criticized the bishop and the church. "We will go to the cellars and the catacombs," he said from the pulpit. "I am the first priest to be condemned, but also to wish to react. I do not fear their maneuvers and I don't find them to be efficient."
Minutella refuses to declare loyalty to Pope Francis
Months of silence followed the social media Mass that shook Palermo. On Sep. 21, Minutella, having petitioned the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican, sent a letter to the archbishop, once more expressing his point of view and the reasons that motivated his protest. In the letter the priest professed his obedience to the Roman pontiff, though he did not specify the pope's name.
Lorefice answered by telling him that his petition had been postponed and that he had to make a public declaration of fealty to Francis on social media. In response, Minutella published a 20 minute video on the Facebook page of Radio Domina Nostra on Nov. 10, where he refused to pledge allegiance to the pope, calling the request "blackmail" and asking Francis to explain his thoughts on Communion for the divorce and remarried.
In the video, the priest also said that he is no longer in ecclesial communion with the Church.
Social media: A powerful tool, a powerful weapon
Beyond bringing attention to the current tensions and divisions within the Catholic Church, the events surrounding Minutella also highlight the power that social media has to amplify and even promote division.
"As with any other media, [social media] is a tool that can be used to bring people together or it can be used unfortunately, in what I would term destructive means," Helen Osman, president of the World Catholic Association for Communication (SIGNIS), told Crux in an interview.
"One of the best attributes of social media is its ability to allow people to dialogue," she said, pointing to the fact that the Internet can be a powerful tool for evangelization and catechesis. "To use it as a megaphone for whatever purpose is not to use it according to its natural, organic nature."
Relating her personal experiences with priests who have used social media to engage and participate with members of their parish and community, Osman said there are possibilities for this medium that go beyond the desire to express one's personal opinion.
"I'm not sure priests should necessarily be using [social media] to be promoting their own particular agenda," she said. "Maybe they should be using it to be listening to their parishioners and the people who are immediately under their pastoral care."
Osman also stressed today's need for formation and education regarding social media, not only for the clergy but also for lay people and especially parents.