Pope Benedict XVI Takes to Twitter

More than 200,000 have signed on to follow @Pontifex, the Holy Father’s handle. His first official 'tweet' will be Dec. 12.

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI’s own personal Twitter account has been created to help the Church directly engage with believers and nonbelievers and to encourage the faithful already using and considering using new social media, the Vatican said Dec. 3.

The Pope’s new Twitter handle is @Pontifex, the Vatican announced today, adding that he will be penning his first tweet from that account during his weekly general audience on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe Dec. 12.

Until then, Twitter users can also ask the Holy Father questions on matters of faith, using the #askpontifex handle. The Pope is then expected to reply personally to a selected number of questions.

The Pope’s Twitter feed will also go out in seven other languages: Spanish (@Pontifex_es), Italian (@Pontifex_it), Portuguese (@Pontifex_pt), German (@Pontifex_de), Polish (@Pontifex_pl), Arabic (@Pontifex_ar) and French (@Pontifex_fr).

Addressing a crowded Vatican press conference Dec. 3, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said the Holy Father’s presence on Twitter “is a concrete expression of his conviction that the Church must be present in the digital arena.” The initiative, he added, expresses a “desire of the Pope to enter into a dialogue with men and women of today and to meet them where they are.”

He further explained that it is best understood in the context of the Holy Father’s previous reflections in which he has spoken of the importance of the Church using the new technologies for evangelization. These include the Pope’s Message for World Communications Day 2009, when he spoke of the necessity of evangelizing the “digital continent” and specifically invited the young to make a contribution; in 2010, when the Pope invited priests to use new social media to spread the message of salvation; and in his message for 2011, when he ostensibly gave his support of Twitter. (“In concise phrases, often no longer than a verse from the Bible, profound thoughts can be communicated, as long as those taking part in the conversation do not neglect to cultivate their own inner lives,” he wrote.)

In comments to the Register, Msgr. Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, stressed that what’s important about this initiative is “not really about how we make use of new technologies” or about the Vatican being at the “cutting edge” of technology, but about how the Church can be “effectively present in the digital sphere.”

He said the Holy Father’s presence on Twitter is the “tip of the iceberg,” pointing to a “whole range of initiatives,” from official websites of various institutions and communities, to personal sites and blogs of public Church figures and individual believers.

“The Pope going on Twitter is an endorsement of those who have already gone there in the name of the Church and is an encouragement to others to be present, to think about what it means to be present,” Msgr. Tighe explained. “So it’s not so much about the use of the technology as about appreciating the potential that this offers for reaching more people.”

The Vatican says the Pope’s presence via Twitter “will represent his voice as a voice of unity and leadership for the Church,” but it will also be a “powerful invitation to all believers to express their ‘voices,’ to engage their ‘followers’ and ‘friends’ and to share with them the hope of the Gospel that speaks of God’s unconditional love for all men and women.”

Initial tweets will be made during Wednesday general audiences, but future tweets may appear at other times. The Pope, whose account will be certified, won’t be physically typing the tweets, but the Vatican stressed they will all come from him.

“All the tweets are the Pope’s words; nobody is going to be putting words into the Pope’s mouth,” said Greg Burke, senior media adviser to the Vatican's secretary of state.

He explained that the handle @Pontifex was chosen because it “means bridge-builder and at the same time suggests unity and hope — unity not only with Catholics, but all men and women of good will who want to hear the message and have open minds and open hearts.”

Asked about their content, Burke said: “The Pope will tweet about whatever the Pope wants to tweet about; it will always be a spiritual message.” As for their frequency, Burke said the Holy Father will send out messages “as often as the Pope wants,” but he hoped it will increase over time. “Stay tuned, and let’s see,” he said.

Vatican officials appeared unconcerned about possible abuses and insults from fellow Twitter users — a practice that has become common in parts of the Twitter sphere. “It’s a free market of ideas, and that’s good,” said Burke. Msgr. Tighe said the risk would have been to fear such responses and then “leave vacant a space” that the Pope’s insights and teachings could fill.

Archbishop Celli pointed out that there are 500 million active Twitter users, 40% of whom are young people aged 18-34. Burke also pointed out Twitter’s appeal to youth and added that to run Twitter is also “cost-effective and not very labor intensive.”

Although the Pope’s new account has attracted global attention, Benedict XVI isn’t completely new to the microblogging site. He sent his first tweet in June 2011, when he launched the new Vatican information website, News.va. Also during Lent this year, the Pope sent Twitter messages through the Pope2You account, staffed by Vatican officials. “We broke the Lenten message down into 40 tweets and ended up with 30,000 people signing up,” said Msgr. Tighe.

The Holy See has also often been at the forefront of communications technology.

In 1931, Pope Pius XI invited Guglielmo Marconi to set up Vatican Radio — the first global radio station in the world.

Last year, the semi-official Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, celebrated its 150th anniversary. The Vatican was a little slower with television, mainly due to financial constraints, but was relatively quick to establish a YouTube channel, while News.va offers news and information speedily, in multimedia format, in ways that can be easily shared.

The Vatican announced today it will also be launching another new communications tool: an app for smartphones and tablets that allows subscribers to watch live video feeds from the Vatican and access all Vatican news sources, such as Vatican Radio and News.va. Users will also be able to be alerted of events as they happen.

Simply called "The Pope App," it will also contain recent images of the Pope and live camera feeds of the Vatican. iPhone and iPad users will be able to download the application next week. It will be available to Android users in January.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.