Vatican City • Now trending on Twitter: Pope Benedict XVI.
On Monday, the Vatican announced that the 85-year-old pontiff would begin posting messages on Twitter next week under the handle (at)pontifex, a term for pope that means bridge-builder in Latin. Within hours, he had more than 100,000 followers.
Benedict is expected to hit “send” on his first post at a general audience at the Vatican on Dec. 12 — a response to questions about matters of the faith that he is now accepting via the hashtag (HASHTAG)askpontifex, officials said.
The Vatican acknowledged that it had chosen the (at)pontifex handle not only because of its meaning but also because many other handles had been taken.
The move is aimed at drawing in the church’s 1.2 billion followers, especially young people.
“The pope’s presence on Twitter can be seen as the ‘tip of the iceberg’ that is the church’s presence in the world of new media,” the Vatican said in a statement.
Just do not expect the pope to start following you on Twitter or retweeting your posts, Greg Burke, a former Fox News correspondent in Rome who was named a Vatican communications adviser this year, said at a news conference.
“He won’t follow anyone for now,” Burke added. “He will be followed.”
Benedict’s posts will go out in Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish. Other languages are expected to be added in the future. The messages will mostly feature the contents of the pope’s speeches at his weekly general audience and Sunday blessings, as well as homilies on major holidays and reaction to major world events, like natural disasters.
Aides will write the texts of Benedict’s posts, but the pope himself will “engage and approve” the content. The pope will post messages however often he feels like it.
“The pope is not the kind of person like the rest of us who in a meeting or a lunch is looking at their BlackBerrys to see if any messages have come in,” Burke said. “He is not walking around with an iPad, but all the pope’s tweets are the pope’s words.”
The pope’s account will not have special security, the Vatican said, but precautions have been taken to ensure the pope’s certified account is not hacked. All the posts will come from one computer in the Vatican’s Secretariat of State.
The prospect of the pope using Twitter has raised some puzzling theological questions. Asked whether the pope’s posts would be infallible, Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, the head of the Vatican’s social communications office, laughed and said they would be part of the church Magisterium, or collective teaching, but should be considered “pearls of wisdom,” not exactly doctrine.
“In any case, it’s a papal teaching,” Celli said. “The message is just entrusted to a new technology.”
A shy theologian who directed the Vatican’s doctrinal office for 25 years before becoming pope in 2005, Benedict is best known for complex theological positions that require far more than 140 characters to explain.
The Catholic Church may be one of the slowest-changing institutions in the world, but when it comes to communicating with the faithful, it has generally been a pretty early adopter. In 1896, Pope Leo XIII became the first pope to appear on film. In 1931, Vatican Radio was founded, and Pope Piux XI was the first pope to make a radio broadcast. In 1949, Pope Pius XII was the first to appear on television.
In 2009, a Vatican website, www.pope2you.net, went live, offering an application called “The pope meets you on Facebook,” and another that allows readers to upload the pope’s speeches and messages to their smartphones. In 2011, the Vatican started its own news website, Newsva.va.
Last year, Benedict wrote that new media and social networks offered “a great opportunity,” but he also warned that they carried the risk of alienation and self-indulgence.