Vatican media officials announced today that Pope Benedict XVI will send the first official tweet from his personal account, @pontifex, Wednesday, Dec. 12. His very first tweet, which will go out live at his televised weekly public audience at the Vatican, will be sent out in eight languages, with the Vatican saying it hopes to add more languages next year.
This afternoon, with zero tweets to his name and ten days before the launch, the Pope already had some 200,000 followers, and the number rose by the hour.
At a packed press conference, the Vatican media officials said that the first tweets would be in response to three to five questions put to the Pope about faith and belief. These questions can be posted to the pope until Dec 12 at #askpontifex in English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Polish, Arabic and French. The questions have already started flooding into the hash tag site; some are not very reverential or very pertinent to the topic.
At first the tweets will be infrequent, probably weekly, issued during papal events or ceremonies, but they will increase with time, said the Vatican. "Every tweet will be personally seen and approved by the Pope," said Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the Vatican's communications department.
Celli said the pope's tweets will be "sparks of truth" or "pearls of wisdom," and although it is a challenge to condense the Pope's thoughts into 140 characters while retaining "depth" and "meaning," he said, "We have seen profound thought can also be expressed in a brief Biblical passage."
If you become a follower, don't expect to get tweets with the Pope's instant reactions to current events or personal thoughts about life in the Vatican; his are more likely to be spiritual phrases or ideas taken from his speeches and writings and prepared by an official for him to sign off on.
The hope at the Vatican is that these tweets, available to believers and non-believers alike, will be "shared and discussed" to encourage dialogue. Very soon, officials said, they hope the Pope will be among the international figures who have immense online followings, so that his words and thoughts are instantly shared and re-tweeted around the world.
"The Pope's main aim is to make contact with people today, and to do that one has to be where they are present," said Celli. Forty percent of today's 140 million Twitter users are between the ages of 18 and 24 and the church knows it has to reach out to them to get their attention.
Although a prolific and keen writer, the pope is not known for his computer expertise. He has, however, spoken out in favor of "new media" on a number of occasions and encouraged the determined steps being taken by the Vatican and the church to stay current in these cyber times. Leading Catholic bloggers around the world have been showing the Vatican how to spread the word digitally for some time now.
Monsignor Paul Tighe, from the Vatican's communications department, said that "the church's presence on the web is multifaceted" and the new methods use the "capillary form of communicating and sharing," which can be effective in getting the message out and evangelizing.
Precautions are in place to ensure that the Pope's certified account will not be hacked, and only one computer in the top offices at the Vatican will have access to his Twitter account.
The delay in the Pope's Twitter launch has meant that phony Twitter accounts which use the Pope's name have multiplied. Many of them use official portraits of the pope as their avatar and have thousands of followers. One spoof site sends tweets in Italian that range from off-color private thoughts to what the pope is having for dinner. The Vatican said it hopes that with the launch of this official feed, the unofficial sites will stop or become less popular, and in some cases, if misleading, could even be closed down by Twitter.
Greg Burke, a media adviser to the Vatican, said it would be strange if the pope was not tweeting in today's world. "This is someone who writes a lot, who gives a lot of speeches, whose job it is to spread the good news. Tweeting is a great way to do this. It is not the only way but it's certainly a good way."
The Vatican already offers a dozen official Twitter feeds in different languages, including @news_va_en; @PCCS_va; and the social network @Pope2YouVatican. The Pope sent his first-ever papal tweet in 2011 -- not from his official site but from a Vatican one -- when he launched the Vatican's online news portal www.news.va, which collects news from various Vatican media offices and online outlets.
More Vatican advances in the digital arena were announced today: a new app for iPad and smartphones to be launched next week called The Pope App, an E-book on the Year of Faith in 6 volumes, and a larger launch of the pope's YouTube channel.