Pope blesses Internet flock with first Twitter message

by Dario THUBURN
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The first tweet marks a milestone in Vatican communication efforts

Pope Benedict XVI clicks on a tablet to send his first twitter message during his weekly general audience on December 12, 2012 at the Paul VI hall in the Vatican. "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," read the tweet

Pope Benedict XVI blessed his new Internet flock on Wednesday in his first Twitter message, sent from a tablet device in eight languages, as the number of his online followers surged to over a million.

"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," read the tweet, which the 85-year-old sent at the end of his weekly general audience.

With his second and third tweets, the pope provided one of the questions sent to him on how to mark the Church's Year of Faith and replied to it.

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

The fourth and fifth tweets were similar, with the pontiff asking how to live in "a world without hope" and replying that "a believer is never alone".

Since the pope last week announced that he would start tweeting under his official Latin title @pontifex, more than 780,000 people have registered to follow his main account in English.

The pope so far also has 234,000 followers for his Spanish account, 115,000 in Italian, 30,000 in Portuguese, 24,000 in French, 22,000 in German, 11,500 in Polish and 9,000 in Arabic.

Within 40 minutes, his first English-language tweet was retweeted 15,600 times.

Despite this, the pope's start on Twitter failed to make it on the site's worldwide trending topics.

The Vatican has invited the pope's new Twitter fans to ask questions about faith that the pontiff will try to answer in 140 characters or less.

The first tweet marks a milestone in Vatican efforts to disseminate the Catholic message worldwide -- especially to younger people.

"The pope's presence on Twitter is a concrete expression of his conviction that the Church must be present in the digital arena," the Vatican said.

Father Antonio Spadaro, director of the Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica, said the Twitter event was comparable to the first papal radio broadcast by Pius XI on February 12, 1931.

"What I am amazed by is the pope's willingness to put himself in the game. Clearly, there are many risks. I think the best way is to face challenges with courage," Spadaro said.

Along with some genuine questions and messages of encouragement from more pious followers, many tweeters reacted with mockery, tongue-in-cheek humour and vulgarity to the holy tweets.

In response to the question about how to celebrate the Year of Faith, one tweeter wrote in Portuguese: "With some nice cold chocolate milk. And the Lord?"

Many asked for the pope to "follow" them on Twitter, which the Vatican has already ruled out.

There were also more bizarre requests, like that of @GgRrEegOorYy, writing in French, who asked the leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics: "Have you got 10 euros?"

The Vatican's new communications adviser Greg Burke, a former correspondent for US channel Fox News, said the pope would issue "a spiritual message" rather than insights into his daily life.

"The pope is not going to be walking around with a Blackberry or an iPad and no one is going to be putting words into the pope's mouth. He will tweet what he wants to tweet," Burke said.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the tweets were "a new service for the Bible" and admitted that some of them "could fall on the rocky soil or the weeds of prejudice" -- a biblical reference.

Several fake Twitter accounts have already been set up in the pope's name and mocked the pontiff, with many users referring to the clerical sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church over the past decade.

Benedict's messages will not be written by the pope himself, but by Vatican officials who will submit them to him for approval.

They are then sent from a single computer -- a safeguard following the embarrassment over the pope's former butler who leaked hundreds of sensitive documents from the Vatican.

The pope's 1.2 million followers so far is on roughly the same level as US swimmer Michael Phelps and British singer Robbie Williams -- and a far cry from the 30 million-plus of pop stars Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.