Rome — “Where people are, the Word of God must be,” a priest who had come here from Washington state for a conference on the Church in America told an Italian media outlet.
That was the simple explanation why one of the most learned and reserved holy men on the planet was putting his finger on Twitter.
When the pope, at the end of his weekly public audience at the Vatican, hit send on his first post on the social-media platform, two grandmotherly women from the Philippines were sitting near me. “Pope — Twitter!” they said, looking at me with radiant smiles. “Thanks be to God!” There was a language barrier, it turned out, so I couldn’t press them about the significance of the event. But their gratitude suggested an appreciation for another catechetical opportunity, for the chance to reach more souls with the Good News. The pope was following the practical philosophy William F. Buckley Jr. expressed in another context: If there is a platform, it might just be the place for our ideas. It might just be the right additional venue for reaching new eyes and minds and hearts.
In the case of the papal tweet, a top priority is conversion. The work of evangelization is something Catholics talk about a lot these days, especially in terms of reconverting hearts, of renewing a true love of Christ — even, or especially, among those who already profess to be Catholic.
But another priority is education — refreshing people’s understanding of what it is the Catholic Church teaches. Monsignor Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, tells me that Twitter has already provided a service internally at the Vatican, aiding a Church that is trying to learn what people most misunderstand, by what they are most frustrated, and by what they are most disappointed. “Many people don’t really understand our primary concerns,” Monsignor Tighe says. And it turns out that “you can say quite a little bit in 140 characters.”
As it happened, the first papal tweet — the one the press was glued to — wasn’t necessarily going to educate anyone or throw Saul off his horse as he was checking his iPhone. “Dear friends,” the successor to Saint Peter tweeted, “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.”
That was by design, Monsignor Tighe explains, “to highlight that this is about connectivity, reaching out to people, and expressing genuine gratitude.”
Another papal tweet, released later that same day to much less fanfare, was a question and answer that focused on prayer. “How can faith in Jesus be lived in a world without hope?” @Pontifex inquired, and then answered: “We can be certain that a believer is never alone. God is the solid rock upon which we build our lives and his love is always faithful.”
Answering a question on how to be “more prayerful when we are so busy with the demands of work, families and the world,” one wise guy started trending with his response: “Relax u r pope,” which is all part of the interconnectivity of the medium. The actual papal answer, by the way, was: “Offer everything you do to the Lord, ask his help in all the circumstances of daily life and remember that he is always beside you.”