ROME, Dec. 12, 2012 — -- Today with a hesitant tap on an iPad at his weekly public audience in the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI, using the handle @pontifex , sent out the first tweet from his official personal account to his followers -- close to a million of them in English alone -- on Twitter.
His first tweet in English: "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."
The tweet, which was sent at 2:00 a.m. ET, has been rewteeted over 30,000 times. @pontifiex sent several additional tweets, each in different languages on his eight different language accounts.
As the iPad was placed on the desk in front of him in the audience hall at the Vatican, he looked at it timidly and needed some direction from assistants before he tapped the screen. The first try apparently didn't work, and Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli stepped in to help. After the tweet had gone out, the pope sat back, looking satisfied.
He has in the past lit giant Christmas trees and statues of Jesus with one push of a button to celebrate special occasions on his travels, but today's tap sent an instant message around the world.
The Vatican is well aware of the pope's impact. The launch of the papal Twitter account has been planned for months.
"Part of the pope's job description is to spread the word," Greg Burke, senior communications adviser for the Vatican, said today. "Twitter is turning out to be a very effective way of doing this."
"Twitter for us is not about the number of people following the pope but about getting people to follow Christ," Burke said.
Slow at first to adopt social media, the Vatican has been moving into digital communications lately as a fast and effective way to reach people all over the world.
Since the announcement of the pope's account on Dec. 3 many have begun to send questions to him about faith via the #askpontifex hashtag. Many of the questions from young people focus on poverty, the wealth of the church, and gay marriage.
A soon-to-be-father asked the pope how to raise his son so he remains with the faith. Another person asked how Catholics ought to respond to criticism about the Virgin Mary. And someone asked, "Where IS heaven?"
There have been personal questions too: "Would you like to visit Indonesia?" "Can you come and celebrate mass in my school? – we can never get any priests." "Do you think courtship is okay in high school?" "What is your favourite place of prayer in the Vatican gardens?"
There was also a priest whose twitter handle is @frpontifex, asking if it would be all right to keep his twitter name.
Although the pope may not send out each tweet -- an assistant will do it for him -- the Vatican insists that these "sparks of truth" will all have his input and approval. The pope is expected to tweet weekly and during papal ceremonies and feast days.