The big news yesterday was that Pope Benedict XVI has finally landed on Twitter. He chose the handle @Pontifex, a papal title which means “bridge-builder” and is a symbol of his online mission. The Pope already has over 400,000 followers despite not sending a single tweet (the first one will purportedly come on December 12.)
The Vatican is not wholly unfamiliar with Twitter. Last year, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications unveiled their own Twitter account which highlights Church news and excerpts from the Pope’s writings and speeches. But launching a personal account for the Pope is a whole new adventure.
To help make it successful, here are five suggestions for our tweeting Pope:
1. Provide value.
If you only tweet information that can be found elsewhere, that’s not value. That’s redundancy. You’ll be way more effective if you provide valuable content that can’t be found anywhere else.
It seems you and your team already sense this. The erudite Archbishop Claudio Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, explained that Twitter followers should expect “pearls of wisdom” from your account.
Share these special “pearls” and people will flock to your messages. Post irrelevant or redundant information, and they’ll fly away.
2. Engage in dialogue
Twitter is one big conversation. So if you’re simply pushing out information, you’re not using its full potential. The great power of Twitter is that it puts you in dialogue with a billion Catholics around the world—and billions of non-Catholics—most of whom see you as distant and inaccessible.
You agree, according to Archbishop Celli:
“The desire of this Pontiff is to enter into dialogue with the man and woman of today.”
To encourage this dialogue, many of your earliest tweets will take on a question and answer format. As a Vatican tweet yesterday explained, “You can send a question to @Pontifex using #askpontifex about Faith. Some questions will be answered by Pope #BXVI.”
This is a great idea, and I really hope you keep it up. You don’t have to answer every tweet or question. But devote 15 minutes a week and answer a few. That’s a small investment that would pay huge dividends. It would symbolize your true interest in listening to others and participating in real dialogue, and it would help readers see you as a true “pontifex”—a bridge between the Chair of Peter and the people of the world.
One more tip: don’t feel you have to answer humanity’s deepest questions in 140 characters or less. A short reply can point to a more developed answer located in a book or Church document. For example, if someone tweets “What is eternal life? #askpontifex” you could reply, “Eternal life is a relationship with Jesus, him who is the source of life. See ‘Spe Salvi 27’ for more http://bit.ly/7bYZg #askpontifex.”
3. Be funny.
Remember what Pope Paul VI wrote back in 1975?
“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”
People don’t just want information. They want people and personality.
They don’t just want to learn. They want to laugh and connect with a real human being.
So don’t be afraid to let your inner Joseph Ratzinger emerge. Tweet a picture of you and your cat (I guarantee it will go viral.) Talk about your favorite hobbies or books. Let loose your wit and German humor. Your model here should be Cardinal Timothy Dolan (@CardinalDolan), one of the most light-hearted Catholic leaders around. His very first tweet began with levity:
Hey everybody. It’s Timothy Cardinal Tebow. I mean Dolan. I’m on Twitter. And I’m live on Town Hall on SiriusXM’s The Catholic Channel 129.
— Cardinal Dolan (@CardinalDolan) May 8, 2012
4. Encourage others to follow your lead.
Over the last several years, your World Communications Day messages have urged Catholics to set out onto the “digital continent,” giving the internet a “Christian soul.” But actions speak louder than words. Your own tweets will strengthen that call as Monsginor Paul Tighe points out:
“I think symbolically this is very important, this is the head of the Church going into a new digital arena to share his words and ideas…it’s an encouragement to those already present using Twitter and other forms of social media to reach an even wider group of people.”
Use your tweets to equip other evangelists. The goal is not 400,000 Catholics sitting idle, waiting for your next tweet. The goal is 400,000 Catholics using Twitter to evangelize their own online friends and followers. Encourage readers to follow your example, not just read your tweets.
5. Do not be afraid.
Your predecessor’s favorite phrase was one that modern man still desperately needs: “Do not be afraid.” Those words are especially appropriate when it comes to new media. John Paul knew this, which is why in his very last document he applied it to new media:
“Do not be afraid of new technologies! These rank “among the marvelous things”—inter mirifica—which God has placed at our disposal to discover, to use, and to make known the truth.”
Twitter is a new frontier for you, yes. But so were computers, so was television, and so was radio. Many Catholics were afraid of each of those technologies, but we eventually conquered our fear and mastered the tools. Just as we’ve done before, so we’ll do again today.
You have Catholics all over the world pulling for you, cheering for you, praying for you, and now following you on Twitter. We’ll do whatever we can to support your online mission. So regardless of its novelty, regardless of its dangers, do not be afraid.
What advice would you give our tweeting Pope?