At first glance, the pope taking to Twitter has the taste of anachronism: an 85-year-old pontiff, who still writes in longhand, tapping out messages 140 characters at a time. But when Benedict XVI sends out his first Tweet Wednesday, soon after his weekly audience in St. Peters’ Square, Vatican officials believe he will be following a long tradition of Christian communication. “This is not a new approach,” says Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture. “What’s new is the technique.”
On Wednesday, the first tweets will be answers to questions solicited from Twitter users under the hashtag #askpontifex. Cardinal Ravasi’s office is one of several charged with looking at submissions from #askpontifex. As a result some of his staff have been screening Tweets that range from the sincere to the buffoonish, from the political to the vulgar (Some, referring the Catholic Church‘s child abuse scandal, are both). While some have worried that wading into the wild–often dirty–world of the Internet will demean the office of the pope, Ravasi and his team see it as part of the pontiff’s pastoral mission to engage with all segments of society. “I see the Internet as a playground and I see the church as playing the role of a responsible adult,” says Richard Rouse, the cardinal’s spokesperson.
Ravasi is one of the more active Vatican officials on Twitter. For the past year, he has used his account to send out citations from the Bible or literature; those he has quoted include Woody Allen and Walt Whitman. And he sees biblical precedent for tweets. After all, says the cardinal, in Mark 1:15 Jesus delivers one of the central messages of Christianity in just 92 characters, including punctuation: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospels.” “The sayings of Jesus are typical Tweets,” says Ravasi. “They deliver an intense message in a minimum number of words.” Matthew 22:21 is another: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” “In [roughly] 50 Greek characters, including spaces, Jesus set down the fundamental relation between political life and religion,” says Ravasi. Just like the mustard seed that grew into a tree, adds the cardinal, “a phrase that’s incisive and fertile can leave a mark inside a person.”
Indeed, the pope joins a rapidly growing group of religious leaders who are taking to Twitter to spread their messages. The Dalai Lama has been using the service since 2010, gathering nearly 6 million followers. Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor, has more than 800,000. According to Twitter, 93% of the top 150 religious organizations in the United States use the service, and those that do get much more engagement than other users, including celebrities; their posts are more likely to be retweeted or replied to. “Religious leaders and religious organizations really punch way above their weight on Twitter,” says Claire Diaz-Ortiz, the company’s head of social innovation. One church in Arizona encourages listeners to Tweet during services; they’ve learned it encourages their friends to attend. On Nov. 9, the appointment of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, was announced on Twitter.
Diaz-Ortiz began advising the pope’s team on how to best use the medium late last winter, beginning by helping choose a Twitter handle. Looking for something that was universal, that would lend itself to use in many languages, and that was linked to the institution, the Vatican decided to use @Pontifex, Latin for pontiff. “The really important part of the name is that it had longevity,” says Diaz-Ortiz. The team decided that all the pope’s tweets would be in his words. Most often the pontiff’s feeds will consist of extracts from his public addresses. (And Benedict will not input the tweets himself; he has lots of assistants to do that for him.)
For his part, Ravasi defended the pontiff’s decision to wade into the virtual public square with an oblique reference to a Bible story, in which Jesus ignores the crowd whispering behind his back. The cardinal put it this way, in a Tweet: “When they saw it, they all murmured, saying, That he was gone to be guest with a man that is a sinner. (Luke 19:7).”