One year ago this morning, on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe — December 12, 2012 — a pope tweeted for the first time. In the Paul VI audience hall, Pope Benedict hit “tweet” in eight languages, including Latin. “Dear friends, 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,” was his first tweet in English, published in front of a crowd of Catholic leaders from the Americas gathered for a conference there on the Church in the Americas that he had opened on Sunday night. A million and a half people would follow @pontifex that day.
I was there that morning, and confess I called him “The Slowest Tweeter” in my syndicated column marking the event. Given what he had said about the importance of reflection and silence for communications, I thought he wouldn’t mind.
The German cardinal would tweet 39 times before his abdication of the Chair of Peter, at which time, the Vatican deleted his tweets, changing the profile account to “Sede Vacante,” empty seat, going back to @pontifex, with a clean Twitter slate, upon the election of Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy.
Why was he doing this? “Believers are increasingly aware that, unless the Good News is made known also in the digital world, it may be absent in the experience of many people for whom this existential space is important,” he wrote in his final World Communications Day message. And so @pontifex was born, Latin for pope, with “bridge builder” roots.
The papal tweeting happened a few weeks into the start of a Year of Faith Pope Benedict had designated for the Church, and many of Benedict’s tweets reflected this. By Vatican encouragement, the interactive hashtag #askpontifex became a thing, and a writer in Madrid asked: “How can we celebrate the Year of Faith better in our daily lives?” which occasioned the pope’s second tweet, that same day. His answer, and perhaps an insight into what he was doing, as he prepared to surprise the world, according to what he discerned to be God’s will: “By speaking with Jesus in prayer, listening to what he tells you in the Gospel and looking for him in those in need.” In Portuguese he was asked: “How can faith in Jesus be lived in a world without hope?”
“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,” @pontifex replied.
“Any suggestions on how to be more prayerful when we are so busy with the demands of work, families and the world?, a mom in the U.S. asked. “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,” the pope replied.
And so he did, in the ultimate act of humility we’ve seen from a world leader in our lifetimes.
Benedict’s next tweet was on December 19: “Everyone’s life of faith has times of light, but also times of darkness. If you want to walk in the light, let the word of God be your guide.” He tweeted on Christmas Eve, New Year’s (also a feast day in the Church), and Epiphany. His first tweet in regard to specific world events in the news came on January 7. First: “Please join me in praying for Syria, so that constructive dialogue will replace the horrendous violence.” And then: “Nigerians have a special place in my heart, as so many have been victims of senseless violence in recent months.” And “May we defend the right of conscientious objection of individuals and institutions, promoting freedom and respect for all,” hit close to home to those in the United States who had been talking about threats to religious freedom, who were hit by a bit of a blow by President Obama’s reelection.
On January 13, he tweeted about identity: “What happens in Baptism? We become united forever with Jesus, to be born again to a new life.”
On January 16, he tweeted something very familiar to anyone who listens to Pope Francis: “If we have love for our neighbor, we will find the face of Christ in the poor, the weak, the sick and the suffering.” And also: “Many false idols are held up today. For Christians to be faithful, they can’t be afraid to go against the current,” shortly thereafter.
He tweeted in gratitude just days before his big news: “Everything is a gift from God: it is only by recognizing this crucial dependence on the Creator that we will find freedom and peace.”
And then the day after he continued his socia-media work as shepherd: “During the season of Lent which begins today, we renew our commitment to the path of conversion, making more room for God in our lives.” He asked for prayers on February 24: “In these momentous days, I ask you to pray for me and for the Church, trusting as always in divine Providence.” He tweeted a tweet for the ages on February 27: “If only everyone could experience the joy of being Christian, being loved by God who gave his Son for us!” In 140 characters or less, he explained why he was abdicating. So that the Holy Spirit could provide someone who would be more urgently heard. Don’t know that he had Time Person of the Year in mind, but doubt he’d object.
“Thank you for your love and support,” Benedict, now to become “pope emeritus,” wrote. “May you always experience the joy that comes from putting Christ at the centre of your lives.”
His full archive remains on the Vatican website.
Going back to that first morning, the debut of @pontifex a year ago, let me set the scene for you, because it helps explains why Pope Benedict resigned and demonstrated what a difference a year and the Holy Spirit makes, if you see this through a supernatural lens, a lens necessary to fully see the story. It being December, the Wednesday audience where he was tweeting was held inside. The hall was largely empty. A friend of mine — who loves the pope, (both of them) — considered skipping it, having been to more than one papal audience in his time. The first tweet was heard, but the Gospel message wasn’t getting out, not like it could. As we are seeing. Now you can’t get around the neighborhoods around St. Peter’s easily on a Wednesday or Sunday morning, when Pope Francis delivers his Angelus address, praying with those gathered. And you’ve seen the photos, modeling the “encounter” he keeps talking about: seeing Christ in another and making sure that person sees Christ in your love for him or her — whether it’s your brother, a sick child (seen as disposable too often in our lives, policies, and institutions) a mother, or a stranger.
On March 17, Pope Francis tweeted for the first time: “Dear friends, I thank you from my heart and I ask you to continue to pray for me,” continuing the posture from which he first greeted the world upon his election by the college of cardinals.
Via Twitter, Pope Francis repeats many of the themes of his morning homilies at Santa Marta in the Vatican where he resides, and other addresses and messages — on faith, mercy, Sacraments, service, and prayer. He inserts into the Twitterverse that which headlines often miss from his pontificate.
God’s forgiveness is stronger than any sin.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) September 26, 2013
“Accept the risen Jesus into your life. Even if you have been far away, take a small step towards him: he awaits you with open arms,” he tweeted on March 31. On April 4, he tweeted, “God loves us. We must not be afraid to love him. The faith is professed with the lips and with the heart, through words and through love.” “How beautiful is the gaze with which Jesus regards us — how full of tenderness! Let us never lose trust in the patience and mercy of God,” he tweeted on April 7. “Being a Christian is not just about following commandments: it is about letting Christ take possession of our lives and transform them,” he tweeted on April 10. “If we act like children of God, knowing that he loves us, our lives will be made new, filled with serenity and joy,” Pope Francis tweeted again that day.
You notice he doesn’t tweet about trickle-down economics.
A Christian is never bored or sad. Rather, the one who loves Christ is full of joy and radiates joy.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) June 30, 2013
Long before a papal exhortation would be taken out of context and misunderstood, @pontifex, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, both, were issuing exhortations — invitations and pastoral pleas.
And there are words of caution, too: “Let us not forget: if we are to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus, our lives must bear witness to what we preach,” he tweeted on April 14. “Worshipping God means learning to be with him, stripping away our hidden idols and placing him at the centre of our lives,” Pope Francis tweeted on April 14 (to the delight of my friend Elizabeth Scalia, who had just had a book published on the danger of idols). And “Jesus’ ascension into heaven does not mean his absence, but that he is alive among us in a new way, close to each one of us,” he tweeted on April 17. “We are all sinners. But may the Lord not let us be hypocrites. Hypocrites don’t know the meaning of forgiveness, joy and the love of God,” Pope Francis, who later in the summer would be reported to have identified himself primarily as a sinner, tweeted on June 23rd.
To understand anything he says about economics, there is Twitter guidance. “The ‘throw-away’ culture produces many bitter fruits, from wasting food to isolating many elderly people,” he wrote on October 25. “Too often we participate in the globalization of indifference. May we strive instead to live global solidarity,” Pope Francis tweeted the next day.
From an American point of view, in an age of a lot of questionable Catholic witness in the public square – particularly politics, making that religious-freedom debate harder to communicate to a people that has become increasingly accustomed to and comfortable with the privatization of religion to one day a week, nostalgia, or a safe harbor in bad times – on Twitter he emphasizes one of the main points of his papacy: authentically living the Gospel and an integrated, radical life of faith which begins with encounter with Christ that stretches our hearts and capacity to love through the overwhelming power of his unearned and tireless mercy: “We cannot be Christians part-time. If Christ is at the center of our lives, he is present in all that we do,” he tweeted in August. It echoed previous tweets, of course, like: “Do not be content to live a mediocre Christian life: walk with determination along the path of holiness,” on May 7, reminding readers of a universal call to holiness Christian lives don’t always reflect. And that was almost verbatim repeated in another tweet from May: “We cannot be part-time Christians! We should seek to live our faith at every moment of every day.”
Like any good communicator, Pope Francis is humble enough to repeat himself until the world listens, online and off.
@Pontifex infuses social media with hope, modeling participation in what Pope Benedict has referred to as a key “agora” of our modern day, “ an open public square in which people share ideas, information and opinions, and in which new relationships and forms of community can come into being.” “The Holy Spirit truly transforms us. With our cooperation, he also wants to transform the world we live in,” he tweeted in April. “”Let the Church always be a place of mercy and hope, where everyone is welcomed, loved and forgiven,” he tweeted in June. “There is no cross, big or small, in our life which the Lord does not share with us,” Pope Francis tweeted in July. “Mercy is the true power that can save humanity and the world from sin and evil,” he tweeted on October 7.
Pope Francis has tweeted about saints — reminding Catholics who tweet throughout the world of the cloud of witnesses they can share on Twitter; on May 1, Pope Francis tweeted: “Dear young friends, learn from Saint Joseph. He went through difficult times, but he always trusted, and he knew how to overcome adversity.” “Let us ask Our Lady to teach us how to live out our faith in our daily lives and to make more room for the Lord,” @pontifex tweeted a few days later. Again with Mary on May 18, and not for the last time: “We must learn from Mary, and we must imitate her unconditional readiness to receive Christ in her life.”
The theme of Christian persecution, or persecution, period, is not unfamiliar to @pontifex followers. “Let us pray for the many Christians in the world who still suffer persecution and violence. May God grant them the courage of fidelity,” Pope Francis tweeted on May 12. Nor is poverty and encounter, again familiar themes to anyone who knows anything about this pope. Pope Francis used Twitter, complete with appropriate World Youth Day hash tags, to document and emphasize points along the way of his apostolic journey back to the continent of his birth in Rio this summer, his first return since leaving for the papal conclave which would elect him pope in the late winter. Like Benedict, he has used Twitter as a prayer rally, for the Philippines after the typhoon, for the people of Syria, for Copts in Egypt, and even victims of a Texas warehouse explosion.
In October, Pope Francis took note of his 10 million followers.
In 2014, Pope Francis’s Communication Day theme for 2014 will be “Communication at the service of an authentic culture of encounter.” It’s safe to say @pontifex tweeting will continue for as long as Twitter doesn’t break. Why should anyone care? Because the account is a window into the life of faith: tweeting pastoral counsel and admonitions, getting to the heart of the virtuous life in 140 characters or less, inviting people into the heart of Christ. At a time of uncertainty and temptations to despair, these are people we need as leaders and neighbors! They are tweets that save souls and civilizations. Taking one or all of these seriously is a prayer for some actual hope and change.