Last week, the Christian holy season of Lent began, a commemoration of the 40 days leading up to the resurrection of Jesus. On the first day of Lent, Pope Benedict XVI launched an initiative. The Vatican announced that the pope will tweet every day during Lent under the Twitter handle @Pope2YouVatican. The tweets will be written in English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and German.
Msgr. Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications told Vatican Radio that Lent is traditionally a time when Catholics make a personal sacrifice or attempt to do more good. The Catholic Church has found that lately young people have been less likely to participate in these activities.
Although the pope’s Twitter page says that he will tweet only for the duration of the Holy Season, Tighe explained that the idea is a test run. The tweets will most likely continue after Lent is over.
The Twitter campaign is a brilliant move for the Catholic Church. The pope’s account is attracting thousands of followers by the day and already has more than 15,000. At the time of publication, all of the tweets so far have been spiritual and not about advancing the Church’s political agenda. Focusing on the spiritual builds credibility for the Church’s message.
The announcement has met some early skepticism in the media. A blogger on Mashable questions whether social media are an appropriate forum for religion. Why not? The Church should seek to communicate its messages wherever its followers are. Increasingly, that means going online. A religious institution that wants to stay relevant has to engage with digital media. This is especially important for the Catholic Church.
The Church has suffered several public relations blows in recent decades. One of them is a result of pushback against what many Catholics consider antiquated values. One that comes to mind is birth control. The commonly cited statistic says that 98 percent of Catholic women use some form of contraception. (The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” recently reported that the media inaccurately represented the statistic. The percentage applies to women ages 15-44.)
The Twitter initiative also comes shortly after the pope released his message for the World Day of Social Communications. In the statement he advised that people can find solace in social media, saying, “In concise phrases, often no longer than a verse from the Bible, profound thoughts can be communicated, as long as those taking part in the conversation do not neglect to cultivate their own inner lives.”
The theme of the 46th World Day of Social Communications will be “silence and words,” a reminder to make time for listening and reflection. It will be interesting to see how much the pope listens to his followers on Twitter. So far the conversation has been largely one-sided. Hopefully, the social networking site will be a platform for a dialogue that gives the pope a deeper understanding of young Catholics around the world and vice versa.
(The photo is from the Catholic Church of England and Wales via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license. To see a video from Rome Reports, which lists itself as an independent reporting agency focused on the Vatican, about the pope’s first tweet via iPad last June, please check below.)