Twitter faithful await pope’s words

Benedict to start tweeting

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives at the international congress “Ecclesia in America” on Sunday at the St. Peter Basilica Vatican. Enlarge photo

ALESSANDRA TARANTINO/Associated Press

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives at the international congress “Ecclesia in America” on Sunday at the St. Peter Basilica Vatican.

Pope Benedict XVI will lift the Vatican to new social media heights on today with what could be the world’s most highly anticipated tweet.

The Vatican has long had its own general Twitter feed, Facebook page and YouTube channel. But nothing has set off fireworks like the announcement that the pontiff – scholar, theologian, author of faith and morals doctrine – would tweet answers to questions about faith, beginning this week.

Benedict has tweeted before: In June 2010 and again, daily during Lent this year. But the tweets went out under scarcely followed handles such as @newsva_en or @Pope2YouVatican.

This time, it’s personal – @pontifex – and that made the difference, says Rev. James Martin, the cultural editor for the Jesuit magazine America. “He’s reminding us all that no medium is beneath us for spreading the Gospel. If Jesus can talk about the birds of the air, surely we can tweet,” Martin says.

He now has more than 900,000 followers in eight Twitter languages, 600,000 in English alone, eager for his words to take flight under his new handle @pontifex. Hundreds of thousands responded to his call last week to tweet to @pontifex, using #askpontifex.

At noon today in Rome, after his general audience, Benedict will share his answers. Expect replies to three, maybe more, questions, says Greg Burke, the former Fox News Vatican correspondent who was hired this summer to manage media strategy for the Vatican.

Burke said, “all the pope’s tweets are the pope’s words. Nobody is going to be putting words into his mouth.” Benedict will push the send button himself, as well, says Burke but, no, he will not be holding it aloft like Charlton Heston playing Moses in “The Ten Commandments .”

“We’re delighted with the response. It’s a great way to reach a lot of people, and especially a lot of young people,” Burke said Monday.

One came from Rachel Amiri, 26, (@godandchocolate) who tweeted, “Holy Father, what is the best way to show others that God is Love in a world that thinks Christians only hate?”

Even if her question isn’t chosen, Amiri, a devout cradle Catholic, says, “We will feel his presence. Just knowing he is listening, that maybe he’ll answer your question – that’s comforting to a lot of people.”

Even though the Vatican staff is filtering the questions, says Tom Beaudoin, associate professor of theology at Fordham University, “There’s something a little thrilling about the idea that the pope’s people, and maybe the pope himself will see your question, that your question may be the one that wins the spiritual gamble. This is not a hierarchy known for asking people what they are thinking about.”

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