Pope joins tweeting masses with Pontifex handle

VATICAN CITY – Benedict XVI, the pope known for his hefty volumes of theology and lengthy encyclicals, is now trying brevity – spreading the faith through his own Twitter account.

The pontiff will tweet in eight languages starting Dec. 12 using his personal handle @Pontifex, responding live to questions about faith during his weekly general audience, the Vatican said Monday.

Within 10 hours of the Vatican’s announcement, Benedict had already garnered nearly a quarter-million followers on the English version of @Pontifex alone, with thousands more following him in the eight other language accounts.

All that, and he hadn’t sent a single tweet.

He may never hit the 1 billion faithful that the Catholic Church counts around the globe, but he’s odds-on to get 1 million followers by the end of the year, British bookmakers Ladbrokes said.

The pope sent his first tweet last year from a generic Vatican account to launch the Holy See’s news information portal, and someone in his name tweeted daily during Lent, part of the Vatican’s efforts to increase the church presence in social media.

A personal Twitter account for the 85-year-old Benedict has been the subject of intense speculation ever since, and Monday’s news conference was packed, a strong indication of the interest it has generated.

Greg Burke, the Vatican’s communications adviser, said the handle (at)Pontifex was chosen because it not only means pope in Latin, but also bridge-builder, suggesting unity.

How often will the pope tweet? “As often as he wants,” Burke said, though he noted somewhat sarcastically that the pope, who still writes longhand, doesn’t check his (nonexistent) Blackberry obsessively during meetings “like the rest of us.”

“He’s not that kind of person. He’s not walking around with an iPad. But all the pope’s tweets are the pope’s words,” Burke said.

While the pope will push the button himself on Dec. 12, subsequent tweets will be sent by someone in the Vatican’s secretariat of state. They will, however, all be approved by the pope, officials said.

“It’s always going to have his engagement and his approval,” said Monsignor Paul Tighe, the No. 2 in the Vatican’s social communications office. “Not physically, but from his mind.”

Questions for the inaugural papal tweet can be submitted to #askpontifex, and the pope will likely respond to three to five of those sent from around the world, Burke said. Subsequent tweets are expected to remain spiritual in nature, taken from his teachings or homilies.

By late Monday, many of the questions sent in were jokes and criticism, including of the church sex abuse scandal – tweets the pope will likely never see.

Currently a host of Twitter accounts use the pope’s name, purporting to be his personal account. The @Pontifex account, however, is certified as the only official papal Twitter feed, Tighe said.

Twitter spokeswoman Rachael Horowitz declined to comment on whether the strong interest in the launch of the pope’s handle would break any records, saying Twitter doesn’t track the number of followers for individual account-holders.

But she noted in an email that religious content on Twitter “punches above its weight” in terms of interest and engagement. Religious leaders, for example, get one retweet for every 500 followers, whereas a musician gets one for every 30,000 followers.

Don’t expect the pope himself to necessarily be retweeting, however. He doesn’t plan to follow anyone other than himself, simply because it would be impossible to avoid offending people he didn’t follow, Burke said.

Papal tweets will be sent simultaneously in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Polish and Arabic. Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, the president of the Vatican’s social communications office, said he hoped to add Chinese.

He stressed that the papal tweets aren’t to be considered infallible teachings, merely “pearls of wisdom” in the pope’s own words.

The Vatican has been increasing its presence in social media, using YouTube channels and Facebook pages for special events and Twitter to engage believers and nonbelievers alike, particularly the young.

The Vatican decided against using a personal Facebook page for the pope because they thought it was too personal an interaction and would require more manpower to keep updated.

Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield

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