In the beginning – more than a week in advance – was the press conference at the Vatican, announcing to a packed chamber of religious correspondents the coming event. The pope was joining Twitter, Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, revealed on 4 December The move into new media was borne of the holy father’s desire to “encounter men and women wherever they are, and begin dialogue with them”.
And for once, believers would know the day and the hour – 12 December, around 10.30am, at the Twitter address @pontifex – and seven associated accounts in different languages. The microblogging site may be a medium that thrives on rapid spontaneity, but the holder of a 2,000-year-old post is entitled to take a longer view, and at least this way his followers – for once the term had a literal as well as metaphorical application – had a week to prepare themselves for the inaugural papal tweet.
Within hours of the announcement, Benedict XVI had more than a quarter of a million followers; by Wednesday morning, when the first message was sent, more than a million people worldwide were following one of the pope’s eight accounts, the majority of them on the English-language feed. Not quite Ashton Kutcher, sure – the Hollywood actor has amassed more than 13.2 million followers to his feed @aplusk (sample recent tweet: “even the best of the best comedians pee in their pants”) – but with more than 1 billion members of the Roman Catholic church worldwide, the holy father can still just about claim the edge when it comes to global influence.
But if the pope did not want for followers, when it came to following other Twitter users the Vatican communications team were far from catholic in their interests. Each of the eight pontifex accounts – the name was chosen because it means “bridge-builder” as well as “pontiff” in Latin, they explained – followed only seven other Twitter users: the seven other papal accounts. Each of them would tweet the same message, at the same moment, in languages including Polish, Portuguese and Arabic.
As the moment came, streamed live on the dedicated Vatican Player, the pope, dressed in white, sat on an ornamental throne at the front of the Audience Hall. A large crowd, gathered specially to witness the event, stood in expectant silence as it was announced: “Ed ora, il Santo Padre invierà il suo primo tweet”: “And now, the holy father will send his first tweet.”
A specially prepared tablet – not, this time, carved of stone, but instead what appeared to be an iPad 4 – was brought into the hall. A bustling priest explained what he needed to do. And then the pope reached forward, and with one outstretched index finger pecked deliberately at the screen. The crowd burst into happy applause.
His message read 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.” It was, for those minded to count, precisely 140 characters.
Within hours the message had been retweeted more than 30,000 times, with more than 10,000 other users marking it as one of their favourites. Many responded in the spirit intended. “Dear holy father, we live in secular countries, please keep us in your prayers!” replied the Catholic youth movement World Youth Day.
Inevitably, however, the message was also met with the traditional Twitter response of mockery, mass spamming and, at times, abuse. “Well, after all that build up @pontifex has tweeted. Some dull religious nonsense. Not even a photo of his dinner. Doing Twitter wrong,” tweeted user @fudgecrumpet. “Here @pontifex my mate @bigconzo won’t play me Fifa on the Xbox. Tell him to wise up” said someone called Kevin. “hi @pontifex what ru wearing” responded one young woman from the Philippines.
About an hour after the first came the second papal tweet. “How can we celebrate the Year of Faith better in our daily lives?” Then @pontifex answered his own question. “By speaking with Jesus in prayer, listening to what he tells you in the gospel and looking for him in those in need.” Further questions and responses followed, selected from among the many thousands tweeted to the accounts in previous days.
The 85-year-old pontiff had been personally very keen to get himself a Twitter account, the Vatican insisted, though the microblogging site itself was no less eager to help. The company has a department dedicated to extending its brand among celebrity and influential figures, and reportedly employs around 20 staff solely to recruit high profile tweeters. Twitter’s head of social innovation, Claire Diaz-Ortiz, had travelled to Rome to prepare the Vatican team for the big moment; after Benedict’s inaugural message she tweeted on her own feed @claire: “The Pope is on Twitter. #done”
Can his holiness maintain his neophyte’s enthusiasm for the famously addictive site? Happily, from now on, he’ll have people to do his tweeting for him, the Vatican confirmed. But while subsequent tweets will be written by others “it’s always going to have his engagement and his approval,” said a spokesman. “Not physically, but from his mind.”