.- Pope Benedict's mass of 2.5 million followers in eight languages during his first month on Twitter has one Vatican priest calling the pontiff's online presence “a new frontier” of evangelization.
Father Paolo Padrini, a collaborator of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said it is good that the Pope has so many followers, but it even more important that the Pope “seeks to co-exist and share on Twitter.”
“Being present in social media is evangelizing, if just for the fact that he is present with his words,” he told CNA Jan. 11.
“It’s a great joy to see the Pope’s words being disseminated, a joy that is held by all believers.”
Twitter is a social media service that allows users to send out 140-character messages, called “tweets,” to other users who follow their accounts. Followers and others may then share these tweets with their own followers with a “re-tweet.”
The Pope’s first tweet on his personal account went out on Dec. 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Over 64,000 people retweeted his introductory message on his English-language account “Pontifex,” while over 33,000 did so for his Spanish-language account “Pontifex_es.”
As of Jan. 11, he has sent out only 21 tweets. He has shared his favorite memory of Christmas, asked for prayers for an end to the Syria conflict and exhorted others to look to Jesus Christ.
“Following Christ's example, we have to learn to give ourselves completely,” the Pope said on Twitter Jan. 9. “Anything else is not enough.”
Anyone on Twitter may interact with any other user. Those who have replied to the Pope range from the devout, the appreciative and the inquisitive to the flippant, irreverent and even obscene.
The Pope’s followers are numerous indeed. His English-language account has over 1.4 million subscribers, his Spanish-language account has 575,000 and his Italian-language account has 265,000.
His tweets also go out in French, German, Polish, Portuguese and Arabic. His Arabic-language account is the least popular but still has a respectable 18,000 followers.
By comparison, President Barack Obama has acquired 25 million followers in almost five years. The Dalai Lama has about six million followers on Twitter.
U.S. religious figures on Twitter include Christian speaker and author Joyce Meyer with over 1.6 million followers; Texas televangelist Pastor Joel Osteen with over 1.2 million followers; the California-based evangelical Pastor Rick Warren with 840,000 followers; and non-denominational Texas Pastor T.D. Jakes with 790,000 followers.
The Pope’s Twitter following quickly surpassed Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who has 72,000 followers.
Claire Diaz Ortiz, Manager of Social Innovation at Twitter, said the company is “thrilled” any time a leader joins their network to connect with his or her followers.
“For the Pope, the decision will be a way for him to better connect his flock of 1.2 billion. That many of those interactions can now take place on Twitter is an inspiring fact for believers everywhere,” she told CNA Jan. 11.
She said that the company has seen a wide range of spiritual leaders form large followings on Twitter.
“Many religious leaders have embraced Twitter to minister to their community, listen to their concerns and share meaningful content,” she said.
Diaz said the Pope’s Twitter debut showed an “incredible emphasis” on internationalization.
“Launching in eight languages was an unprecedented use of the platform by any large leader,” she said. “Although the dynamic brought with it many challenges that the Vatican worked hard to address, ultimately the current eight accounts (with more to come) are wonderful examples of how one leader can connect in many different languages with Twitter followers throughout the world.”
Fr. Padrini, who has developed and implemented pontifical council communications initiatives like the website pope2you.net and the iPhone app iBreviary, said that he thinks the Pope’s success on Twitter is “major.”
“It has really warmed my heart. It’s a beautiful thing. But I didn’t have any doubt in my mind that it would be successful,” he said.
Judging from what he has read and heard in informal conversations, he thinks the Pontifical Council for Social Communications must be “very happy” that Pope Benedict’s communications are “more widespread than ever thanks to social media.”
The priest was optimistic about Twitter as a medium, even though little can be said in a single tweet.
“One hundred and forty characters are few but the number of years of Jesus on earth were also few,” he said. “The important thing is to be present and to do so with quality.”
Fr. Padrini added that the Pope has helped inspire others on the internet.
“I feel that because of the Pope’s presence online, all of the work of all of us who work in evangelization online is also valued.”