Pope Benedict XVI is to start tweeting from his own personal account, probably by the end of this year, according to the Vatican.

It says the Holy Father’s tweets will be “fairly infrequent” and their content will probably “not veer too far from his texts, and on many occasions point to the things the Pope says.”

Someone else will be typing out the actual tweets, the Vatican says, though he will be signing off on each one.

“It’s going to be nice having the Pope up there [with other popular tweeters],” a Vatican official told me. “If you look at the top 10 tweeters in the world, those with the most followers, I think eight of them are entertainers - Lady Gaga, actors and singers.”

“I don’t know if we can compete with them – it’s hard to compete with Lady Gaga – but it will be good to have something coming directly from the Pope, something spiritual thrown into the mix,” he said.

One question is how the Vatican will handle some of the potentially very negative reply-tweets he may get from atheists and the like.  It’s not clear how these will be managed but the official said: “Let’s hope his followers are re-tweeting rather than engaging, because I don’t see the Pope sitting down and answering replies to tweets.”

Another question some are asking is whether it amounts to a “dumbing down” of the papacy? Should the Vicar of Christ be put on a level with celebrities, as this initiative might imply?

“That’s a fair question to ask,” the official said. “Some may see it that way, but it’s like asking whether the Pope should hold news conferences like the American President. Well he sort of does, on the papal plane when he goes on trips.” He also justified the new papal twitter account by saying the Church has an important message to get out and so “any noble means we can use to do that is legitimate.”

The Pope is a keen advocate of new social media, and sees it as a useful - though obviously not faultless - tool for the new evangelization. In his World Day of Social Communications Message for 2011, he wrote:

"The web is contributing to the development of new and more complex intellectual and spiritual horizons, new forms of shared awareness. In this field too we are called to proclaim our faith that Christ is God, the Saviour of humanity and of history, the one in whom all things find their fulfilment (cf. Eph 1:10). The proclamation of the Gospel requires a communication which is at once respectful and sensitive, which stimulates the heart and moves the conscience; one which reflects the example of the risen Jesus when he joined the disciples on the way to Emmaus (cf. Lk 24:13-35). By his approach to them, his dialogue with them, his way of gently drawing forth what was in their heart, they were led gradually to an understanding of the mystery."

A papal twitter account is certainly an interesting idea, but could this be a tweet too far, or an inspired way to bring the Gospel to others? 

Video: Pope Benedict sending his first tweet, on a general Vatican account, to launch the news and information aggregate site www.news.va. June 28, 2011.