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On Twitter, Pope Benedict to reach out to new followers

Tony Gentile/Reuters

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives to lead his Wednesday general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican.

From gospel to hashtags, the Catholic Church has always been about mass communication. In the 15th century, the Bible became the first major book produced on a printing press, and it is still one of the most distributed books of all times.

In 1931, the Vatican launched a radio service, and it now broadcasts its programs and prayers around the world in 47 languages. Then came television, with its biggest religious star: John Paul II, the most media-friendly Pope of all times.

So it was just a matter of time before Pope Benedict discovered Twitter, the 21st century evolution of the word-of-mouth, the most effective way to spread the gospels for hundreds of years.

 The papal handle has not yet been disclosed but it is widely expected to be @BenedictusPPXVI, his name and title in Latin and launched at the end of the year.

"It will be an officially verified channel," a Vatican official told Reuters.

Problem is, Twitter’s 140 characters aren’t long enough to fit a Hail Mary, let alone the titanic encyclicas, apostolic exhortations and papal pronouncements Pope Benedict XVI is famous for. Moreover, the 85-year old pope is known to write longhand, and as many men his age, he is unfamiliar with a computer.

So, despite centuries of success communicating to the masses, it's no wonder the Vatican has not been an early adopter of the Internet.

The Vatican’s official website, Vatican.va, is useful for logistical information such as the pope’s agenda and the daily news bulletin, but far from being a source of religious inspiration. In 2009, the Vatican famously got egg on its face in 2009 when it was forced to admit that, if it had surfed the Web more, it might have known that a traditionalist bishop whose excommunication was lifted had for years been a Holocaust denier.

That same year, a new Vatican website, www.pope2you.net, went live, offering an application called "The pope meets you on Facebook," and another allowing the faithful to see the pontiff's speeches and messages on their iPhones or iPods. 

The pope has also given a qualified blessing to social networking. In a document issued last year, he said the possibilities of new media and social networks offered "a great opportunity", but warned of the risks of depersonalisation, alienation, self-indulgence, and the dangers of having more virtual friends than real ones.

You Tube channel was recently launched, but with "only" 7 million viewers, the Pope is still hundreds of millions of clicks short of music sensations such as, ahem, Justin Bieber. To be fair, it must be said that videos that show Pope Benedict XVI receiving the credentials of the new ambassadors of Nigeria, Australia and Colombia may not be as riveting of, say, Charlie biting his brother's finger.

So what will the pope use Twitter for?

The leader of the world's 1.2 billion or so Roman Catholics will not, of course, write the tweets himself, but he will sign off on them before they are sent in his name. Primarily the tweets will come from the contents of his weekly general audience, Sunday blessings and homilies on major Church holidays. They will also include reaction to major world events, such as natural disasters.

But some tweets will probably be limited to a link to a URL with the entire document. Even divine intervention might not help squeeze the gist of a papal encyclical, which can run to more than 140 pages, into 140 characters.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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