Pope's first tweet had followers a-twitter

A million people join in as church embraces social media

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On an early episode of "Saturday Night Live," papal groupies try to talk their way by the Pope's doorman to get a backstage meeting with the His Holiness.

As of Wednesday, there was no need: The pope is now the one coming to the masses, via direct communication on Twitter.

The Twitter account for @Pontifex gained more than a million followers almost immediately after it launched at 2:28 Eastern time, in eight different languages.

With the tap of an iPad, 85-year-old Pope Benedict XVI sent his first tweet, "Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart."

As the Vatican had announced would happen, he responded to three questions posed through the Twitter stream #askpontifex. The questions concerned how to celebrate the Year of Faith better in daily life, how to practice faith in Jesus "in a world without hope," and how to be more prayerful given the demands of work and family.

The use of Twitter may seem incongruous for an establishment that has been around for centuries, but it's really just another tool for the church to do the work it's always done, said Rocco Palmo, writer of the popular blog, "Whispers In the Loggia."

"It may seem strange to the outside world but the job of the church is to be in the world," said Mr. Palmo, who spoke last year at a Vatican conference on social media. "The church isn't a church if it just preaches to its own in comfortable ways."

It is no accident, the Philadelphia-based Mr. Palmo said, that Pope Benedict's account launched on the feast day for Our Lady of Guadalupe -- a celebration of the day in 1531 that a Mexican peasant saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary, dressed in traditional Aztec clothing.

Celebrations for Our Lady of Guadalupe have become the largest events in American and Latin American Catholicism, Mr. Palmo said, with at least 100,000 people gathering early Wednesday morning at a field in Chicago.

"Guadalupe is not just something that happened in Mexico City 500 years ago," Mr. Palmo said. "When God wraps himself, and the church, in the culture of the day, amazing things can happen."

The Pittsburgh Diocese is not using Twitter yet, said Bob Lockwood, director for communications, though it does have an active website and Facebook presence.

The Catholic Church has been forward-looking in the past on its methods of communication, he said, noting that Pope Pius XII appeared in television in its relative infancy in 1946.

"We've always traditionally and strongly used print, TV and radio, but you have to keep constantly evolving, especially because many of the audiences don't use the traditional means of communication anymore," he said.

It is unclear how active the Pope will be on Twitter -- how often he will tweet and who, if anyone, he will be re-tweeting. The Vatican has acknowledged that the Pope won't actually be typing the messages, but said that the words are his alone, drawn from speeches and writings.

Questions to the Pope are to be submitted with the hashtag #askpontifex, which was nearly overtaken Wednesday morning with joke questions and tweets criticizing the church for the child sexual abuse scandal.

Comedians and sites like The Onion, which set up a mock papal Twitter stream, also weighed in.

Criticism is a natural -- and expected -- part of church advocacy, Mr. Palmo said.

"To think that you can get the job done by shielding away from tough questions would be the epitome of hypocrisy," he said. "The answer is to go deeper in the world."

Tweeting with the pope

Here's the first tweeted message made Wednesday by Pope Benedict XVI using the brand new papal Twitter account:

"Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter. Thank you for your generous response. I bless all of you from my heart."

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Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308. First Published December 13, 2012 5:00 AM


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