Despite recent reports, you cannot avoid hell, have sins forgiven or save anyone's soul by following Pope Francis (@pontifex) on Twitter.
Such claims erupted this week after a British newspaper mangled a story about the usual plenary indulgence available to participants in the pope's World Youth Day. The Vatican decree said it could be extended to those who follow the celebration electronically, if accompanied by sacramental Confession, Eucharist and appropriate prayer.
The headline in Tuesday's Guardian was "Vatican offers 'time off purgatory' to followers of Pope Francis' tweets."
"Summer is a slow news time, and with all the Francis-mania, suddenly every reporter fancies himself a Vatican specialist," said Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphian who blogs about the Roman Catholic Church at "Whispers In the Loggia" and moderated at a 2011 Vatican conference on Catholic social media.
"It's an outbreak of the summertime stupids mixed with the fascination with Pope Francis."
By the time the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit journalist, tried to set the record straight on the CNN Belief Blog, he counted nearly 200 news sources with similar headlines. He wrote that definitions of indulgence were in error and that the Twitter connection was a huge stretch.
There's nothing new in obtaining an indulgence "via the new means of social communication."
Listening to the pope's Christmas and Easter addresses can bring an indulgence if done in the right spirit with sacraments, and has been extended via radio and television for 50 years, Mr. Palmo said. New media have been included for at least a year, he said.
The decree was issued July 9 for next week's World Youth Day, a Catholic festival, in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.
"The young people and the faithful who are adequately prepared will obtain the Plenary Indulgence" if accompanied by Confession, Eucharist and prayer, the decree said.
"The faithful who on account of a legitimate impediment cannot attend the aforementioned celebrations may obtain Plenary Indulgence under the usual spiritual, sacramental and prayer conditions ... [by] following the same rites and spiritual exercises as they occur via television or radio or, with due devotion, via the new means of social communication."
The pope's Twitter account won't enable such participation because he tweets once a day, Mr. Palmo said. The event could be monitored via tweets at #WYD, he said. But for those with an Apple or Android mobile device, a better choice is The Pope App, sponsored by the Vatican.
"It will have all the live video," Mr. Palmo said.
Viral treatment of the decree is rooted in a misunderstanding of indulgences, said Robert Lockwood, communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. "Everybody -- Catholics as well -- has a superstitious definition of the word and the baggage that it brings," he said.
Indulgences remain a point of contention between the Catholic and Protestant traditions.
In 1517, a German monk, Martin Luther, ignited the Protestant Reformation through his public challenge to indulgences and the theology surrounding them. A fundraiser for the new St. Peter's Basilica in Rome had been distorting the church's teaching on indulgences by claiming that donors to the new edifice would spring souls from purgatory.
In Catholic theology, purgatory is an intermediary state for the dead en route to heaven. It involves a purifying repentance for sins that have already been forgiven through Jesus' atoning death. "An indulgence is an expression of that repentance," Mr. Lockwood said.
"We understand that through the merits of Christ's death and resurrection we are saved, but we are also judged by our actions in this life. Our bad actions don't just disappear, and our good actions help make up for our bad actions. Taking part in something like the indulgence during World Youth Day is a way to take part in the ongoing conversion we should always be engaged in."
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416. First Published July 19, 2013 4:00 AM