A Twitter high five from the Pope? Maybe someday

December 13, 2012

As a practising Catholic, I was eagerly waiting to read Pope Benedict XVI’s first tweets. I didn’t expect to be blown away by the first few, but interest was building on the Internet, and I was part of that. Not many in India or my home state of Goa seemed to care very much. Perhaps they didn’t even know that the Pope had joined Twitter. But the small step by Pope Benedict on Wednesday, marks a dramatic change in the way the Church communicates to its faithful.

No one expected the Vatican, usually conservative by nature, or the 85-year old Pontiff, to say anything path-breaking or revolutionary. As expected, the first tweet was bland, and the event anti-climactic. Pope Benedict XVI also proved himself initially incapable of tweeting on his own.

Nonetheless, when a pope does something for the first time, it’s impressive anyway. He has more than a million followers, and his messages will be tweeted in eight languages (Hindi isn’t one of them). More impressive is the idea that you can talk to the pope. The German pontiff’s first few tweets raised various responses, ranging from child abuse cover-up accusations, people calling him a Nazi and Satan, and others offering him encouragement and prayers, and someone who asked him to pray that she gets a new iPhone 5.

The question now is whether Pope Benedict will find it challenging to get any real, meaningful message across in less than 140 characters (brevity not being the Vatican’s usual style). And the Pope will not be following anyone else on the account, nor will he send the tweets himself. Tweets would also mainly be spiritual messages, and you wouldn’t find the Pope tweeting about what he ate for breakfast or what he’s watching on TV. (Though one does wonder… does Pope Benedict eat breakfast? What does he like? Does he watch TV? What’s he watching, anyway?)

The event wasn’t front page news in India nor did it probably need to be. But for the Catholic Church, which until the 1960s celebrated Mass all over the world mainly in Latin, this is a milestone in its attempts to being more in touch with its followers. Anyone, anywhere with a Twitter account can reach out to the Pope. Neither can anyone cover up comments on Twitter nor could any gaffes go unnoticed.

It will be interesting to watch how the Vatican’s experiment with Twitter unfolds. While I don’t expect to see the Pope high-fiving people just yet, tweeting humanizes the Church a bit. The Pope’s first tweet got a ton of replies, including one that just simply said “thx dude”– not exactly solemn Church incantations, but it shows how much more accessible the leader of the world’s billion-plus Roman Catholics could be. His handle too, @pontifex, means “bridge builder.” Let’s hope it’s more than just a nice name.

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