On Dec. 12, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger will start tweeting with the handle @pontifex, the Vatican said Monday. The historic announcement set off a deluge of comments and questions from people who couldn’t believe they would actually be communicating with the successor of Jesus’s apostle Peter.
The explosion of tweets with the hashtag #askpontifex ranged from the spiritual to the sacrilegious and were sent by haters, lovers, jokers — and notables including the president of Israel and Joyce Carol Oates.
“Who would win a fight between Jesus and Wolverine?”
“Is it true that all dogs go to Heaven?”
“How can one nurture/grow one’s faith in the Lord in the midst of the worldly predictions abt the end of times/consp theories?”
The Catholic Church has largely sat out the social-media revolution. The possibility of making the leader of the world’s largest faith group accessible via your iPhone has staggering potential. A day after the announcement of @pontifex and before sending out a single tweet, the pope had nearly a half-million followers.
That’s a huge change from the hefty encyclicals and multi-volume meditations on Jesus that the 85-year-old theologian has typically used to communicate. During weekly appearances, he reads prepared commentary on Scripture.
Being distant in a way-too-intimate culture has had its benefits. Even as critics — including many Catholics — have bemoaned the remoteness of popes and most bishops amid sex scandals and deep partisan infighting, the papal office has retained its powerful mystique.
When Benedict releases a publication or makes some comment during a private lecture, it can set off a debate on the ground while he — and thus the church — hovers above. It goes without saying that when reporters call, the pope is not available for comment.
But the Twitterverse is more like a conversation. In the wake of Monday’s announcement, social-media experts and regular folk alike have been wondering: Will he respond in real time to events, potentially making news far more often and shaping global debate? What will his “voice” be like, his personality in 140 characters? Seen by some as an aloof academic, will the Holy Father do what other public figures have done, zapping out tweets about pets and sports? Could someone of his unique stature change Twitter? Could Twitter change him?
“I don’t think we’ll be seeing him use emoticons. I don’t think he’ll be cutesy-poo about anything,” said Elizabeth Scalia, managing editor of the Catholic channel at the Web site Patheos and an avid blogger and tweeter. “But he can speak in the language of the Good Shepherd, and he understands the world needs some gentleness.”
Some said Twitter’s brevity might be a positive — and surprisingly like the language of the Bible.