With the push of a button, I sent a tweet to the pope at #AskPontifex, the new Twitter account the Vatican set up for Pope Benedict XVI. It's nice to go straight to the top. Kudos to the pope who saw that, even at 85 years of age, he has to engage in social media.
Pope Benedict speaks many languages, his native German, of course, and Italian, French, English and other tongues too. But the most important language for him may be Digital, the one that reaches every nation in the world.
On Twitter, Pope Benedict will send messages in eight languages: English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, French, Arabic and Italian. His tweets debut December 12, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who in an apparition startled the peasant Juan Diego by speaking to him instead of higher ups in mid-16th century Mexico.
When Pope Benedict joins Twitter, he endorses a community that exists on the Web, where people can even discuss matters of the soul. Its anonymity can free people to share deep concerns. It is not always pretty, of course. Recently, for example, on the USCCB Facebook page people debated whether there's a religious obligation to help the poor. Arguments over such a mandate can be a healthy, though sometimes raucous religious exercise. Undoubtedly Pope Benedict will encounter cynicism, but he can handle that. He knows it is important to engage, even at personal cost.
The pope's web leadership might encourage bishops and others to follow suit. This will be no small accomplishment. Resistance comes from more than the fact that social media is time consuming. It comes from the fact that blogging and the like defy what many have been taught. Priests and bishops, for example, learned early on: "it's about the message, not you." Now comes a communications vehicle where they are expected to get more personal. It jars them.
Church leaders also revel in finely nuanced theology. Tweets of 140 characters preclude nuancing. Some who think length equals profundity might pause at truths such as "God loves you," "Jesus died for you" and "I am with you always." They're short on words, deep in meaning and fit Twitter's length restrictions.
Some fear the pope and other leaders might lose some mystique when they tweet with the hoi polloi. Yet plain speaking is not irreverent and being with the masses is not beneath a religious leader. After all, God did become man. Scripture proves simple speech can be holy. Think "Let there be light" at creation and Mary's "Let it be done unto me according to thy word" at the Annunciation. Engaging the crowd means being with God's children, such as the multitude Jesus addressed on the mountainside.
Social media reaches billions. Its brevity makes it accessible. It's via the Internet, a new place people gather and that sometimes needs to be redeemed. It is interactive as it beckons web users to engage another, perhaps the antidote to the isolation many people feel today. As he wades into social media waters, the pope will encounter a sometimes cynical cyber-world, but by using Twitter with sincerity, he can elevate the medium. Some may doubt the wisdom of this papal venture, but fear has never stopped Christians from sharing their message through all available means.