Pope Benedict XVI: God's representative on Twitter sends first message

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was... 'Dear'

The Pope has tweeted. Or as they might say in the Vatican: “Pontifex Maximus titiavit.” But immediately after sending a blessing to his 1.2 million followers, the Twittersphere was flooded with irreverent responses on a Biblical scale.

Inside the Pope Paul VI hall, a rapturous audience cheered as Pope Benedict XVI laid the papal finger on the tablet device before him. On the Internet, the response was more divisive, as believers and non-believers alike took the Roman Catholic Church to task over its beliefs, its teachings and a tragic history of sexual abuse.

“There’s nothing really there that we wouldn’t have anticipated,” said Monsignor Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. “You have the mix of the frivolous and the cantankerous, but there are also some extraordinarily interesting and engaging questions.”

One user pondered: “If the Pope makes a typo, is the typo infallible?” while another asked the Pope directly: “Where did I put my keys? Can't find them anywhere.” Some cruelly mocked the 85-year-old for appearing to miss the correct key for sending his first tweet. Luckily Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli was on hand to step in and post the message in a timely fashion.

There were questions as to why his first Tweet (“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”) was not available in the traditional Latin (“vobiscum, cari amici, mihi libet per Titiationem conloqui. gratias vobis pro comissimis responsis ago. vos omnes ex animo benedico”).

Tweets by His Holiness, which are issued in eight different languages across eight separate accounts, come in the form of questions and answers. Among his assurances were: “We can be certain that a believer is never alone,” and he advised followers to “offer everything you do to the Lord”. He will Tweet with the help of Papal aides, as it is thought he still prefers to communicate in longhand. A report by data analysts at Floating Sheep showed that he is most popular (in terms of follower numbers) in Italy, Nicaragua and Zaire.

Today was not the first time the Pope has used Twitter. He sent a blessing via the Vatican news portal for its launch in June last year. But the creation of his own accounts suggests the Church is beginning to take social media more seriously. “The pope going on Twitter is important, but it’s important for the Church generally as it’s where people are spending increasing amounts of their time. [By going on Twitter, you can] facilitate dialogue with people from all parts of the world and have a meaningful debate,” said Monsignor Paul Tighe.

Rocco Palmo, a Catholic writer who chaired the first Vatican conference on new media, said: “The scepticism has gone now. There used to be parts of the Church where I was radioactive, but now a lot of bishops and priests are using Twitter, and even more are on Facebook.” He said he wasn’t surprised by the interest in the Pope’s Twitter account, saying it was a case of “one of the world’s oldest institutions coming into a new world”.

But there remain questions over whether Twitter is an appropriate place for a religious leader. At 1.2m followers, the Pope trails the Dalai Lama by 4.5m, but both followings are dwarfed by the hordes of people debating and deconstructing the musings of showbiz figures. Kim Kardashian, an American reality star whose Tweets largely show off her expensive designer clobber, has 16.8m, and tween-pleasing warbler Justin Bieber has 31.4m.

The President of Atheism UK, Mark Embleton, dismissed the whole affair as a “public relations stunt by the Vatican”, adding: “Anything the Pope does gets turned into a news event, but his first tweet is not really of any interest. However, if his subsequent tweets are ‘It's OK to use contraception’, or ‘homosexuality is not a sin’, then that would be newsworthy.”