The spiritual leader of 1.1 billion Catholics is due to join Twitter as soon as the end of the year, a Vatican spokesperson told the Associated Press on Friday.
“It’s doubtful Benedict himself will wrestle down his encyclicals, apostolic exhortations and other papal pronouncements into 140-character bites,” the news agency explained. The 85-year-old Pope doesn’t usually use a computer and will most likely simply sign off on tweets written for him. Many details, including the crucial curiosity surrounding the Holy Father’s user name, are still shrouded in mystery. The handle @PopeBenedict seems to include relevant information about the Pope, including his coat of arms and notes that “@PopeBenedict hasn’t tweeted yet.” But Twitter is rife with such fake accounts, and this one remains unconfirmed by the social network.
And certainly many questions have arisen with this collision of the religious and technological worlds. Does papal infallibility extend to tweets? Are his retweets, by default, endorsements?
The Pope has previously warned of the dangers of becoming too engrossed in the online world. “Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others,” the Pope wrote in a message last year, “provided that attention is paid to avoiding dangers such as enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence, or excessive exposure to the virtual world.”
Benedict XVI also warned that truth can’t be measured in followers. “We must be aware that the truth which we long to share does not derive its worth from its ‘popularity’ or from the amount of attention it receives,” he wrote. The Holy Father has sent his first and so far history’s only pontifical tweet last year when he launched the Vatican’s news-information portal. But it’s clear that when the Pope launches his own handle, he’s in for a rapid surge of followers eager to tune in to his 140-character spirituality.
On Facebook, the Pope’s most popular fan page has attracted more than 65,000 “likes,” dwarfing Iran’s spiritual and temporal leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei’s fan base of 10,340 and the 710 people keeping virtual tabs on the new Coptic Pope Tawadros II. Yet, Benedict XVI has no official, sanctioned page of his own on the social network, and his Facebook popularity is no match for the Tibetan spiritual-leader-in-exile, the 14th Dalai Lama (4.5 million likes). His Holiness, evidently seeking to be the religious world’s social-media head honcho, has 5.5 million followers on Twitter.
In June, the New York Times reported that the followings of religious leaders on Twitter in the U.S. had even surprised those managing the social network. Tweets by Christian author Joyce Meyer, televangelist Joel Osteen or the Dalai Lama were retweeted more often than those of pop-culture icons Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber.
The Vatican set up its first website in 1995. Its YouTube channel was first announced in a press conference in 2009. It also launched the online platform Pope2you, linking to an iPhone application and its YouTube channel. Unlike the Dalai Lama, Benedict hasn’t yet moved on to Pinterest.
The Google+ account for Pope Benedict XVI is in all likelihood an impostor’s — or at the very least, a placeholder. “Pope hasn’t shared anything with you,” the profile reads. Perhaps a turn to Google’s social network will come after his Twitter transition.