VATICAN CITY — Twitter: Meet Pope Francis, the new @Pontifex of the Catholic Church.
Francis is a pope of many firsts — first Jesuit pope, first pope from the Americas, and now first pope elected in the age of Vatican social media. While Francis has no papal Facebook, he took to Twitter to make it official: “HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM!”
Wednesday’s papal election marked the first time that the world used social media to follow a papal election. According to the social-media analytics firm Topsy, tweets about the Pope reached 15 billion views — more than twice the world’s total population.
Sister Anne Flanagan, U.S. blogger and social-media expert for the Daughters of St. Paul, said social media made the papal conclave a “real event of Church unity” all over the globe.
“For those who are only marginally connected to the Church, it kept bringing the reality of the Church’s vitality up to their attention, inviting them to reactivate their own participation in Church life (even if only by retweeting something about the Pope),” Sister Anne told the Register. “For those in areas where Catholics are a minority, it must have been a hugely encouraging infusion of hope and support.”
When Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran announced the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis, the Twittersphere burst into a frenzy. Twitter reports that the March 13 announcement generated 130,000 tweets per minute and that it recorded at least 7 million tweets that day on the papal election — a record topped only by 20 million tweets generated over news of President Barack Obama’s re-election in November.
Francis will not only shepherd the Church’s 1.2-billion member flock, but he also indicated he intends to follow Benedict XVI’s footsteps in tweeting the Gospel to 3.37 million followers as @Pontifex.
Rocco Palmo, a Vatican analyst who runs the Whispers in the Loggia blog, said in a tweet that the @Pontifex account became active again “reportedly on orders of [the] new Pope.”
Within 45 minutes of the “white smoke” from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican had renamed the papal Twitter handle @Pontifex from “Sede Vacante” to “Pontifex.” Vatican News tweeted assurances from Msgr. Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, that the @Pontifex account was “dormant, not dead” and that the Pope’s followers on social media should stand by.
At 3:33 ET, the Pope made the announcement “HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM” — a message that in all caps reflected the excitement of the digital and real worlds following the election. The message has been retweeted more than 82,000 times.
World Leaders Tweet
Twitter also provided a forum for world leaders to express publicly their congratulations and good will.
“I look forward to working with His Holiness to advance peace, security and dignity for our fellow human beings,” President Obama (@BarackObama) tweeted.
“I want to say hello and express my congratulations,” tweeted Cristina Kirchner (@CFKArgentina), president of Francis’ native Argentina.
British Prime Minister David Cameron (@Number10gov) also tweeted, “A momentous day for the 1.2bn Catholics around the world as His Holiness Pope Francis I is appointed the 266th Bishop of Rome.”
The Dalai Lama (who has 6.5 million followers on Twitter) also sent a tweet to Francis with his congratulations.
U.S. leaders, such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, live-tweeted the papal election, and American Idol host Ryan Seacrest also retweeted the Pope’s first tweet to followers.
CCN journalist Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) tweeted about Pope Francis as “renowned for his 2001 visit to a hospice, in which he washed and kissed the feet of 12 AIDS patients.” Fox News reporter Bret Baier (@BretBaier) announced congratulations to the Pope on Twitter and tweeted: “St. Francis was seen as a reformer & a humble servant @Pontifex - a Pope of the people.”
Even in the square of St. Peter’s, a group of young people unfurled a banner — “We’ll follow u @Pontifex” — that showcased how important to youth is the Pope’s presence in the digital world.
Reaching Young People
“Benedict’s tweets were uplifting and inspiring. I’m really hoping that Pope Francis keeps it up,” said Thomas Peters, 27, an American blogger and communications spokesman for the National Organization for Marriage, who also live-tweeted throughout the conclave.
“It’s a way for the Church to keep ties with younger people going through a searching period in their life,” he said.
In the United States, 82% percent of Catholics born since 1982 have a Facebook profile page, and 24% of Catholics aged 30 and younger have a Twitter account, according to a study commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Nearly 135,000 individuals had signed up at PopeAlarm.com, an initiative of the Catholic college ministry Fellowship of Catholic University Students, to receive instant news on their mobile phones of the papal election.
According to Topsy, the United States and Argentina generated 22% and 19% percent of Twitter traffic over the Pope’s election. South-American countries (including Argentina) generated at least 41% of all related Twitter traffic.
Mentions of “Pope” on Facebook increased 10,000% in user statuses after the announcement of Francis’ election, according to Facebook. It reported the top two mentions worldwide that day were “Pope” and “Jorge Bergoglio,” followed by “Vatican,” “White smoke,” “Cardinal” and “Catholic.”
Eager to find whether Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio already had a Twitter account, some reporters erroneously said they had discovered it. But reporters missed satirical tweets such as “Si soy el nuevo Papa, los niños me van a amar más que al Papa Noel” (translation: If I am the new Pope, the children are going to love me more than Santa Claus) that would have tipped off that Twitter handle @JMJBergoglio was a fake. Twitter shut down the account, but not before @JMJBergoglio jumped from 3,500 to more than 130,000 followers in an hour.
Cardinal Bergoglio appears to have an official Facebook page that boasted 40,000 followers before his election. The page created in 2008 by Cecilia Fernandez Castro links to the Buenos Aires Archdiocese and had ballooned to 163,000 “likes” and counting on Facebook by March 14. It urged followers to join Pope Francis on Twitter @Pontifex.
However, Twitter also provided a forum for the world to engage in humor over the papal election. While hashtags like #whitesmoke, #holysmoke, #newpope, #Sistine Chapel trended worldwide, so did #ReplaceMovieTitleWithPope. Twitter users suggested such movie names as “Pope Fiction,” “Dude, Where’s My Pope?” “Gone With the Pope,” “Episode VI: Return of the Pope” and “Dead Pope’s Society.”
The conclave chimney got in the act as Peters, who usually tweets as @AmericanPapist, began tweeting under the name @ConclaveChimney.
“5,600 accredited journalists = one chimney. #vaticanmath,” he tweeted.
“It goes against the grain of thinking that Catholics are luddites without humor,” Peters told the Register. “So I liked the opportunity to evangelize in a subtle way: that Catholics are happy, and this is a moment of great joy for us.”
The seagull that landed on the Sistine Chapel smokestack also went viral. Jesuit Father James Martin took to Twitter to quip, “That seagull on the Sistine Chapel roof by the conclave is great product placement for the Holy Spirit.”
The seagull even began tweeting @SistineSeagull, and amassed 8,000 followers in hours. One such tweet: “I have to get a closer apartment. You wouldn’t believe my commute in from the Colosseum this morning. Pigeons. Can’t. Fly. #conclave.”
As the world waited, comedian Joan Rivers added to the humor with her own prescient tweet, “Waiting for the Pope to emerge on the balcony in a white gown. Doubt he’ll be singing ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.’ A missed opportunity!”
Building on Benedict’s Foundation
Benedict XVI sent 39 tweets from @Pontifex over 11 weeks, and Sister Anne believes that Pope Francis will keep the papal tweets coming. She pointed to a 2012 interview with the Italian daily La Stampa in which Cardinal Bergolgio spoke about the need for the Church to “reach out to people who are far away via digital means.”
She said, “This tells me that he will keep the @Pontifex feed going and maybe even increase it a bit.”
Peters concurs that Pope Francis will soon start to communicate his own meditations on the Gospel in 140 characters or less.
“It’s a huge chance to communicate the truth,” Peters said. “It’s our own platform for evening the playing field for evangelization. And that’s very important.”
Peter Jesserer Smith (@PeterJSmithNY) writes from Rochester, N.Y.