Anticipating the Pope’s Twitter Arrival: Theology in 140 Characters

Anticipating the Pope’s Twitter Arrival: Theology in 140 Characters
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Pope Benedict XVI will begin tweeting on Wednesday, a week after the Vatican created the social media accounts for the 85-year-old leader of the Catholic Church.

The pope is expected to answer questions from Twitter users from his account @pontifex, using the hashtag #askpontifex. He will push the button himself on Wednesday, but a Vatican official will handle subsequent tweets after approval by the pope. 

Maureen Fiedler, host of Interfaith Voices and a Catholic nun, said she will be interested to see how the pope addresses complex questions.

“I don’t think you can say much that’s theologically profound in 140 characters or less,” Fiedler said. “It could be used to issue calls for justice and peace in the world. Whether he will or not, time will tell.”

On Wednesday, the pope will likely respond to three to five questions, while subsequent tweets will be taken from the pope’s homilies and teachings or responses to major world events.

The Vatican has long had its own general Twitter feeds, and 2010 the pope tweeted from and iPad to announce the new Vatican news site. Earlier this year, the Vatican sent tweets pre-approved by the pope during Lent.

Rome is not used to things moving quickly and the Internet often moves quite quickly, said Elizabeth Scalia, managing editor for Patheos’ Catholic portal.

“No matter how fast Rome tries to be, its nature is thoughtful and deliberate, and I think there is something to be said for a thoughtful and deliberate taking-on of the new-media man,” Scalia said.

The pope has more than 600,000 followers so far, but he only follows his seven other Twitter accounts. The tweets will go out in Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese, German, Polish, Arabic and French, with more languages expected in the future.

"Of course the world will not be saved by tweets but among a billion baptised Catholics and among the seven billion people of the world, several million people will be able to feel the Pope is closer in this way too, hearing him say a word for them, a spark of wisdom to bear in their minds and hearts and to share with their twitter friends,” said Fr. Federico Lombardi, the head of the Vatican Press Office, said in a posting for news Vatican.

A hesitancy toward new media still remains in some Catholic circles, said Rocco Palmo, but it’s not the same kind of paranoia he found when he started his blog Whispers in the Loggia in 2004.

“Ten or even five years ago, a priest with a blog would've been seen in most of the Vatican as a threat, or someone wasting his time,” Palmo said. “Now, clearly, it's seen as an asset.”

In 2010, the pope called on the ministry to use the latest technologies, including blogs and videos, for evangelization and dialogue.

At a press conference last week, Greg Burke, the Vatican's communications adviser, joked that the pope, who still writes longhand, doesn't check his (nonexistent) Blackberry obsessively during meetings "like the rest of us." "He's not that kind of person. He's not walking around with an iPad. But all the pope's tweets are the pope's words," Burke said, according to the Associated Press.

The Vatican decided against using a personal Facebook page for the pope because they thought it was too personal an interaction and would require more manpower to keep updated, the AP reports.

The pope's Twitter page features his picture over the backdrop of St Peter's Square packed with pilgrims.

“It’s about time he joined Twitter,” said the Rev. Carl Chudy, director of US operations for St. Francis Xavier Mission Society. “Catholics are often behind when it comes to media. He could be setting an example for other church leaders who might not be doing it.”

Twenty-four percent of Catholics 30 and under use Twitter compared with 13 percent of all Catholic adults, according to a new report from the U.S. Conference of Bishops’ research agency, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. The study also showed that 62 percent of Catholic adults have a profile on Facebook and two-thirds of Catholic adults visit YouTube. Despite Vatican efforts to increase its web presence, 53 percent of more than 1,000 self-identified Catholics surveyed were not aware of a significant Catholic presence on the Internet. 

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