Pope tweets a blessing, answers question on faith, prayer

11:22 AM, Dec 12, 2012   |    comments
Vincenzo Pinto, AFP/Getty Images Pope Benedict XVI uses a tablet to send his first Twitter message during his weekly general audience Wednesday.
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Hey, busy mom in the USA, Pope Benedict XVI is about to answer your tweet about finding time to pray.

The pope reached out to the world of digital seekers - 140 characters at a time -- today with a blessing and two tweets. So far, he has answered questions posed in Spanish and Portuguese.

His blessing, the first tweet from his new personal account, @pontifex, flew out at 5:30 a.m. ET during his weekly general audience: "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 text of the tweet, in Italian, flashed on the jumbo screens in the modernist Pope Paul VI Hall, where the audience was held. All his tweets will post simultaneously in eight languages.

Then, about an hour later, he answered the first of thousands of questions sent to him in the past nine days. It went out to someone who asked in Spanish, "How can we celebrate the Year of Faith better in our daily lives?"

Benedict replied: "By speaking with Jesus in prayer, listening to what he tells you in the Gospel and looking for him in those in need."

Jose Calderero, a writer based in Madrid, claimed authorship of the question, said Claire Diaz-Ortiz,. Twitter's manager of social innovation, who managed the event for the social media site at the Vatican.

And four hours later, the pope's next answer went out, prompted by a man who asked in Portuguese, "How can faith in Jesus be lived in a world without hope?"

The pope replied, "We can be certain that a believer is never alone. God is the solid rock upon which we build our lives and his love is always faithful."

The final question, expected by noon ET today, is "from a mom in the USA" who asks "how to find time for prayer as a busy person," Diaz-Ortiz said.

So far, the Vatican is not naming exactly whose questions the pope is answering. But many could find a personal connection.

Two of the 20 questions that Adam Blanchard (@blanchard_APG) sent in asked about the Year of Faith.

And Ruaiyya Noor at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., and a freelance writer, asked, "What can we do as Catholics to use this 'year of faith' to proselytize Catholicism and Christ?"

The Italian newspaper La Stampa's column "Vatican Insider" says an Italian company, Expert System, did a computer analysis of 20,000 Twitter comments and questions sent to the pope. It found four main categories: religion (41%); art, culture and entertainment (20%); economy and finance (16%); and crime (5%).

Msgr. Paul Tighe, secretary of the Vatican's Social Communications Council, told Catholic News Service that amid many "crude or hateful" tweets, "there were some wonderful, touching questions, very honest and very genuine."

More than 1 million people, including 645,000 from the English-speaking world, responded to his "follow me" invite to Twitter feeds in eight language for @pontifex. Thousands sent him questions - from sincere to silly to serious digs at the Catholic Church. Vatican staff screened the tweets, but officials said the pope's answers would be in his own words.

By mid-morning, @pontifex, the English account, was hopping with retweets. Nearly 39,000 accounts had sent on the blessing and more than 12,000 had marked it as a favorite Tweet. The pope's third tweet, the answer to a question about the Year of Faith, had been retweeted more than 8,000 times and had more than 3,000 favorites, according to data from Radian6, a social measurement tool.

Also by 10 a.m. Eastern, "pope" had been mentioned 32,013 times from 26,772 unique sources. Mentions of "pope" peaked at 6 a.m. Eastern, not long after the first tweet was sent. The word "Pontifex" had been mentioned 218, 756 times from 143,840 unique sources, with mentions peaking at 6 a.m. and again at 9 a.m.

Between Nov. 8, when the Twitter account was announced, and yesterday, more than 13,000 tweets including the #askpontifex hashtag had been sent.

Benedict has launched pre-approved tweets on other Vatican Twitter accounts since 2010, but this is the first time he has used this new personal account.

The social media company engineered the 12/12/12 event, encouraging the Vatican to personalize its multiple Twitter accounts. It assigned Diaz-Ortiz to the Holy see to manage the account. She was there - and tweeting - for the big moment today.

Twitter has 20 employees roaming the globe signing up headliners, says The Washington Post, "with promises of free marketing, extra security against impostors and training to avoid the gaffes that have embarrassed some business executives and members of Congress ..."

At the Vatican, Twitter met up with former Fox newsman Greg Burke. He was brought in to the Vatican last summer to offer media strategy. Vatican communications and governance were once called a "train wreck" by the National Catholic Reporter's Vatican specialist, John Allen.

Matt Archbold, who writes for the National Catholic Register, took a gently humorous line for the Washington Post On Faith section:

"If you don't retweet the pope, is that a sin of omission?... If you get blocked by the pope, is that a 21st century form of excommunication? Are we really about to see the birth of the excommunitweet?"

But Archbold points out that "Jesus may have been the greatest tweeter ever." All the Beatitudes - beloved lines such as "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" - are 140 characters or less.

The tweet event was set for today as part of recognition of the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared to a Mexican peasant in 1531. In 2000, Pope John Paul II proclaimed her the mother of the "new evangelization" in the Americas, a campaign to promote a revival of Catholic faith and practice, particularly where it lags in the West.

This fall, Benedict convened a gathering of 250 select worldwide bishops under the "new evangelization" lag. Their mission: Concentrate on reaching and restoring lapsed Catholics in places such as the USA, where one in 10 Americans say they once were Catholic.

Benedict followed the global gathering with a second one, earlier in December, focused specifically on the Americas.

Key to the new evangelization is inspiring everyday Catholics to speak about their faith to their peers.

The Twitter campaign fit the program. It attracted thousands of questions and thereby enlisted hundreds of thousands of people to share their faith in the digital world.

Catholic blogger Rocco Palmo expects this will just be the beginning of a Vatican social media campaign "with the pope visibly involved." Bishops are getting on board as well. Palmo cites Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins, who once said that instead of bishops being issued a ring, a tall hat and a shepherd's crook when ordained, they should get a ring, a hat and a smartphone.

"You have to be in the places where you can reach people and they can reach you," Palmo says.

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