Pope Blesses Internet Flock with First Twitter Message

W460

Pope Benedict XVI blessed his new Internet flock on Wednesday with his first Twitter message in eight languages to the million-plus followers already signed up to receive the holy tweets.

"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," read the tweet, which the 85-year-old pope sent from a tablet at the end of his weekly general audience.

With his second and third tweets, the pope provided one of the questions sent to him and replied to it.

"How can we celebrate the Year of Faith better in our daily lives?" he wrote.

"By speaking with Jesus in prayer, listening to what he tells you in the Gospel and looking for him in those in need," he answered.

Since the pope last week announced that he would start tweeting under his official Latin title @pontifex, more than 683,000 people have registered to follow his main account in English.

The pope so far also has 174,000 followers for his Spanish account, 96,000 in Italian, 25,000 in Portuguese, 19,000 in German, 18,000 in French, 10,000 in Polish and 7,000 in Arabic.

"All the @Pontifex accounts cross one million Twitter followers minutes before the Pope sends his first Tweet", Claire Diaz-Ortiz, Twitter's social innovation manager who has worked closely with the Vatican ahead of the pope's Twitter debut, said in a tweet.

Within 40 minutes, his first English-language tweet was retweeted 15,600 times.

But despite this, the pope's start on Twitter failed to make it on the worldwide trending topics.

The Vatican has invited the pope's new Twitter fans to ask questions that the pontiff will try to answer in 140 characters or less.

The first tweet marks a milestone in Vatican communication efforts as it tries to disseminate the Catholic message worldwide -- especially to younger people.

Several leading Vatican prelates are already regular tweeters including Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

"The pope's presence on Twitter is a concrete expression of his conviction that the Church must be present in the digital arena," the Vatican said.

Benedict wants to "ensure that the good news of Jesus Christ and the teaching of his Church is permeating the forum of exchange and dialogue."

Father Antonio Spadaro, director of the Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica and one of the Church's Twitter pioneers, said the pope's first tweet was comparable to the first papal radio broadcast by Pius XI on February 12, 1931.

"Social media are real places of emotion where people share their lives, their best and worst desires, their questions and their answers," he said earlier.

The Vatican's new communications adviser Greg Burke, a former correspondent for U.S. channel Fox News, said the pope would issue "a spiritual message" rather than insights into his daily life.

"The pope is not going to be walking around with a Blackberry or an iPad and no one is going to be putting words into the pope's mouth. He will tweet what he wants to tweet," Burke said.

Several fake Twitter accounts have already been set up in the pope's name and used to mock the pontiff.

In response to the pope's question in the second tweet about how to celebrate the Year of Faith, one user @binnie joked "hookers and blow".

The distinctly more pious @RoyalBlueStuey wrote: "The Rosary and the Mass".

Burke said there would always be parodies, as well as tweets that seem official but are fake but that this was a risk worth taking to engage with social media.

Thousands in the Twitter universe have posed questions to the Church, including a slew of offensive messages about the clerical sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Church over the past decade.

A New York-based mobile advertising startup tweeting under the handle @pontiflex admitted last week that it was not the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics after users mistook its account.

"We are deeply humbled by the surge of new followers today. But if you're looking for tweets from the Pope please follow @pontifex," said the Brooklyn-based company, which has 1,800 followers.

Benedict's 140-character messunages will not be written by the pope himself, but by Vatican officials who will submit them to him for approval.

They will then be sent from a single computer -- a safeguard following the embarrassment over the pope's former butler who leaked hundreds of sensitive documents from the Vatican.

The number of followers the pope has accumulated over the past week is still a far cry from the 30 million-plus followers on Twitter for pop stars Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.

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